The federal role in local schools would be significantly reduced under a bipartisan proposal released Tuesday by Senate leaders working to replace No Child Left Behind, the country’s main education law.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) want to shift decisions about academic standards, whether and how to evaluate teachers, what to do about low-performing schools and other matters to states and local school districts.
The 600-page bill rejects the prescriptive nature of No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s K-12 policies.
“Basically, our agreement continues important measurements of the academic progress of students but restores to states, local school districts, teachers, and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement,” Alexander said in a statement.
The bill maintains a limited oversight role for the federal government — what Murray calls “guardrails” — that aims to ensure equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged students.
States would still have to test every student annually in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school and report scores by race, income, disabilities and English learners.
States would still be required to act to improve the worst-performing schools. But they would decide how to do it — a departure from No Child Left Behind, in which the federal government laid out penalties for failure — and from the policies of the Obama administration, which required states to follow one of four models of school reform.
The Alexander-Murray bill also would let states decide whether to evaluate teachers — and how to do it. And it would block the U.S. education secretary from anything connected with academic standards. States would be required to show they have “challenging” standards in math, reading and science, but the federal government would have little or no say over them.
That is a direct response to critics of the new Common Core State Standards, who charge that the Obama administration used competitive grants and other policies to coerce states to adopt the math and reading standards now in use by 43 states and the District.
In crafting their bipartisan bill, Alexander and Murray each sacrificed certain provisions.
Alexander abandoned his hope to change the way federal dollars for poor children are distributed. Currently, those funds are based on a school’s number of disadvantaged students. Republicans want the money to “follow the child,” so that if a poor student transfers from a high-poverty school to a more affluent one, the federal dollars would follow. The provision, known as “Title 1 portability,” would apply only to public schools.
Democrats, civil rights groups and teachers unions oppose Title 1 portability, arguing it would hurt high-poverty schools. President Obama threatened to veto any bill with Title 1 portability.
Murray agreed to drop her idea to create a new category of federal formula funds for early childhood education. Murray, a former preschool teacher, did insert language that would allow federal dollars to be spent on early childhood programs. An aide said she is likely to try to amend the bill to create a new early childhood grant program.
The Senate education panel will take up the Alexander-Murray bill April 14.
Efforts in the House are less clear. The House Education Committee passed a GOP bill on a party-line vote, but it was yanked from floor debate in February after conservative GOP lawmakers said it didn’t go far enough to shrink the federal role in education.
The original federal education law was created by Congress 50 years ago to fund schooling for the neediest students. When President George W. Bush signed the current version, No Child Left Behind, in 2002, it expanded federal involvement and penalized schools that it labeled as “failing.”
Congress was supposed to rewrite the law in 2007 but has been unable to reach consensus on a new statute. Meanwhile, states bristled against the requirements of No Child Left Behind. In 2009, the Obama administration used Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion competitive grant program, to nudge states to adopt education policies it favored, including the Common Core. In 2011, it started granting waivers to states to free them from the more onerous requirements of the law in exchange for embracing Obama’s policies, such as evaluating teachers in part based on student test scores.
Conservatives and some liberals have complained that the federal goverment is too involved in local education.