Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the chairman of the House education panel, said Tuesday that he is still a “handful” of votes short to pass his GOP bill to replace No Child Left Behind, the main federal education law.
Kline made those comments in an interview Tuesday morning after briefing the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents top education officials in every state. Kline has spent the past month trying to drum up support for his legislation amid defections among conservative Republicans, who say the plan does not go far enough to shrink the federal influence on K-12 education.
The bill also faces stiff opposition from Democrats, who say it would divert federal dollars from high poverty schools to more affluent schools and exacerbate unequal educational opportunities.
“No bill is better than a bad bill,” said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on Kline’s committee, describing his views to the state education leaders on Tuesday.
President Obama, who met with the state education leaders for about an hour at the White House on Monday, has threatened to veto Kline’s bill, known as the Student Success Act.
Kline said he wants the House to pass a bill to keep the momentum going. “I know absolutely that the Student Success Act is not the legislation that will go to the president’s desk,” he said. “It’s going to take compromise. That’s a pejorative word around here, but that’s what you have to do.”
No Child Left Behind, which Congress passed in 2001, was due for reauthorization in 2007. Elements of No Child Left Behind — such as the requirement that every student be proficient in math and reading by 2014 — were unrealistic, yet the law required states to face increasingly harsh penalties if they weren’t met. The Obama administration has issued waivers to free 42 states and the District of Columbia from most aspects of the law, but in exchange they had to agree to adopt policy changes favored by the administration, such as the requirement to tie student test scores to teacher evaluations. That has led critics to accuse the administration of federal overreach.
But Congress has made little progress on replacing No Child Left Behind, frustrating the state education chiefs visiting Washington this week.
“They need to do their job and pass a law,” said Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, one of several state officials who seemed depressed by the gridlock they found at the Capitol.
Virginia Barry, New Hampshire’s education commissioner, said she was disturbed by what feels like a “lack of vision for the future” in Washington. “The public is looking for all of us to break through that,” she said.
Kline’s bill, which passed the House education committee on a party line vote, was pulled from the House floor in late February when votes seemed uncertain and as members grew consumed by a separate debate over funding for homeland security. Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, urged members to vote against the bill and has not wavered in its opposition.
Kline said Tuesday that he is hoping that GOP leaders return the bill to the floor for a vote after Congress returns from Easter recess in April and that he will have persuaded enough members to get it passed. He said he had to “educate” several lawmakers who did not realize that if they took no action on his bill, No Child Left Behind would remain in effect. Many education officials, governors and lawmakers from both parties agree that No Child Left Behind does not work and unfairly burdens schools with onerous federal requirements.
But there is disagreement about the proper balance of power between federal and state interests.
Meanwhile, the Senate has been working in a bipartisan way on a new education bill, led by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told the state education leaders that he and Murray expect to release their bill for a committee markup the week of April 12.
Alexander urged the state education leaders to lobby their delegations and push for a solution. “It’s time for you to get a result,” he told them. “It’s time to get rid of No Child Left Behind and get rid of waivers in 42 states.”
“Hopefully, the House will pass its version and we’ll go to conference and the president and [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan will have their say and we’ll get a bill that can be signed in a bipartisan process through and through,” Alexander said.
Alexander said he saw two main issues that need resolution — whether a new law should keep the mandate that students take standardized tests every year in math and reading and how much flexibility states should have in holding schools accountable for educating students.
Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools who serves on the Senate education committee, said he sees three principles at play in negotiations over a new law: the federal role in guaranteeing equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged students, holding states accountable for educating all children and sparking innovation in the nation’s classrooms.
It is clear that the federal government needs to cede more control to states and local school districts, Bennet said.
“When I ran the Denver Public Schools, I can remember asking myself, why are the people in Washington so mean to our kids and our teachers?” he told the state leaders, who gathered at the Dirksen Senate Office Building. “And then I came here and realized they’re not mean. They just have no clue. There is no place in the universe you can be sitting and be farther away from what happens in our classrooms than this very building where you’re sitting now.”