House Republicans passed a bill Friday to reduce the federal role in public education and cede back to states decisions about how to deal with failing schools, how and whether to evaluate teachers, and how to spend much of the money sent by Washington to educate poor, disabled and non-English-speaking students.
The bill marks a significant departure from No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that set federal goals for academic achievement, penalties for schools that fell short of those goals, and prescriptions for steps states must take to improve failing schools.
No Democrats supported the bill, which passed by a 221 to 207 margin, with 12 Republicans voting with the Democrats. It marked the first time in a dozen years that either chamber of Congress approved a comprehensive bill to update federal education law.
Republicans argued that states and local school districts are in the best position to decide how to educate children and that federal control has hamstrung teachers and school leaders.
“States and school districts have been clamoring, clamoring for less federal mandates,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the lead sponsor of the bill.
But Democrats said that without federal oversight, some states will return to a time when they failed to do much to educate poor, disabled and non-English-speaking students.
The bill would freeze education spending at sequester rates instead of restoring federal dollars to previous levels, which means schools nationwide would receive $1 billion less next year.
Although its passage marked a victory for Republican leaders, the bill’s future is cloudy. President Obama has threatened to veto it, and Senate Democrats have crafted their own version that retains much of the current federal oversight of K-12 public education. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the sponsor of the Senate bill, said that the House version “falls short” and that “significant differences” remain between the two visions.
In a raucous, lectern-pounding speech, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who led opposition to the GOP bill, argued that it would devastate the country’s most vulnerable children.
When Miller was advised “the gentleman’s time has run out,” he shouted back, “No! You know who’s running out of time? Children are running out of time in this nation,” which sparked a slow clap in the chamber.
The GOP bill would update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which Congress created in 1965 to distribute federal money primarily to help children who are poor, disabled or English-language learners. That money represents about 10 percent of funding for the nation’s public schools; localities and states provide the rest.
The current version of the law, No Child Left Behind, expired in 2007, but Congress has been unable to agree on an update.
No Child Left Behind sets conditions and requirements for every public school receiving federal funds to educate poor students and those with special needs. The law defines academic progress and sets sanctions for schools that don’t measure up. It also dictates specific improvement strategies that districts must adopt for their weakest schools.
The GOP bill takes a different tack, returning power to the states.
It would retain the No Child Left Behind requirements that schools test students annually in math and reading from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But states would set their own academic standards, decide whether schools are meeting them and determine what — if anything — to do about underperforming schools.
An unusual coalition of business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, have joined teachers unions, civil rights groups and advocates for the disabled to oppose the GOP bill.
Republican lawmakers railed against waivers that the Obama administration issued to 39 states and the District of Columbia that exempt them from some of the most punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind.
The administration began issuing the waivers in 2011, after mounting complaints from governors and school districts that No Child Left Behind was unrealistic and too punitive.
In the absence of an updated law, Education Secretary Arne Duncan began giving states waivers in exchange for their agreement to embrace certain education policy changes favored by Obama, including new academic standards known as the Common Core.
The GOP bill expressly forbids the Education Department from using waivers or grants to influence state education policy.