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GOP legislators in the House approve bills lessening federal reach into schools

Republican lawmakers on a House committee, after hours of pointed debate with their Democratic counterparts, approved two bills Tuesday that would shrink the federal government’s involvement in education.

“I would get the federal government completely out of the education business if I could,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), hours before the straight party-line votes. “But this goes in the right direction.”

Most observers consider it unlikely that Congress will pass a new education law, which it has been trying to do for five years, until after the November election. A Senate committee approved bipartisan legislation last year, but that bill has yet to come to the floor.

One of the most controversial provisions of the Republican bills would gut the current requirement, known as “maintenance of effort,” which says states must maintain a certain level of education funding in order to receive federal dollars to help educate low-income children.

Republicans argue that the requirement discourages states from looking for ways to become more efficient. Democrats worry that losing it will lead to serious cuts in primary and secondary education budgets and disproportionately affect low-income children.

Democrats on the panel repeatedly mentioned that the federal role in education has been rooted in concerns about inequality that span decades.

“Yes, it is a national priority,” said Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.). “If groups of children are consistently deprived of an education, we’re going to fix it.”

Democrats offered their own proposal, but it was defeated.

“Since 1965, every reauthorization (of federal education law) has been bipartisan, and this is not,” said Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) “And that makes this difficult.”

The GOP bills also would give school districts greater discretion in spending federal dollars to educate English-language learners, disadvantaged students and others who require additional help.

The bills would do away with “Adequate Yearly Progress,” a major tenet of the current law, which requires states to set achievement goals for students and then measure their performance against those goals.

When Congress passed No Child Left Behind in 2001, it marked a bipartisan effort to hold schools accountable to parents and taxpayers and a federal commitment to attack student achievement gaps.

For the first time, the law required schools to test all children in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and report results by subgroups — including race, English learners and students with disabilities — so that it was clear how every student was faring.

The law also required states to set goals for adequate yearly progress, including the expectation that all students tested show proficiency in math and reading by 2014. Schools that fall short year after year face escalating penalties.

Educators and public officials have complained for years that the goals under No Child Left Behind are unrealistic, and they claim an inordinate number of schools are being mislabeled failures as a result.

The Republican bills would do away with adequate yearly progress and instead require states to develop a system for improving low-performing Title I schools while leaving the remedies to localities.

The committee action came as more than two dozen states — including Virginia and Maryland, as well as the District of Columbia — formally asked the Obama administration to exempt them from some of the more onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind. The administration has already issued waivers to 11 states.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.

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