The Obama administration on Friday said legislation passed this week by Republicans on the House education panel would rob vital federal dollars from the nation’s poorest schools and redirect them to wealthier schools.
“This approach is backward, and our teachers and kids deserve much, much better,” Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told reporters on a conference call.
The administration is taking aim at a bill passed on Wednesday by Republicans on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The bill, called the Student Success Act, garnered no Democratic votes. The full House is expected to vote on it at the end of the month.
Both houses of Congress are attempting to write a new version of No Child Left Behind, the main education law that governs the federal government’s interactions with the nation’s 100,000 public schools. The 2002 law was due for reauthorization in 2007, but earlier attempts to craft a replacement fell apart as Democrats and Republicans argued over the appropriate role of the federal government.
No Child Left Behind, the result of bipartisan deal-making between President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass), significantly expanded federal authority over local schools. Under the law, for the first time, schools were required to test every student annually in math and reading in grades K-8, and schools had to make “adequate yearly progress” — as measured by student test scores — or face increasingly heavy penalties. Under the law, every student was supposed to be proficient in math and reading by 2014 — a deadline that came and went with most policymakers agreeing it was unrealistic.
The resulting pushback against No Child Left Behind — especially from conservatives who want to shrink the federal footprint — has led many in the GOP-controlled Congress to try to shift power back to the states and curtail federal oversight of public schools.
The House bill would erase most methods the federal government now uses to hold states accountable for educating students. Under the bill, schools would have to measure student academic progress and report it by subgroup — race, family income, whether students are English-language learners or have disabilities — and issue annual report cards.
States would not be required to meet any particular benchmarks for academic achievement. They would have to intervene in high-poverty schools that are not improving by their measures, but the type of intervention and the number of schools would be up to the states, which would not be required to evaluate teachers.
Democrats argue that without federal oversight, states will return to the norm in earlier days, when some states ignored the achievement gap between poor and more affluent children, and neglected the needs of English-language learners and students with disabilities.
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House education panel and lead sponsor of the bill, said he wanted to convert several programs into block grants to allow the states greater flexibility to use federal money in the most efficient way.
The most controversial element of Kline’s bill is a proposal to change the way federal funds are allocated to help educate poor students.
Currently, public schools receive those federal funds according to a formula based on the number of disadvantaged students enrolled. Under the Republican plan, known as “Title 1 portability,” the money would “follow the child,” so that if a poor student transferred from a high-poverty school to a more affluent one, the federal money would follow the student to the new school. The provision would apply only to public schools.
The Obama administration said that proposal would devastate schools that serve the neediest students.
For example, Phoenix public schools have a poverty rate of 61.4 percent. The school system receives $8.5 million in federal Title 1 funds. Under the House committee plan, the school district would receive $3.8 million less, a nearly 45 percent drop in federal funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The administration estimates that under the GOP proposal, 112 school districts serving approximately 33,600 students would lose more than 50 percent of their Title I funding. The government spent more than $14 billion in Title 1 money in the past fiscal year; the president’s proposed budget calls for $1 billion more for the program.
Kline responded that his legislation would offer Title 1 portability as an option to states; it would not be a requirement.
“Over the last six years, the Obama administration has dictated national education policy from the U.S. Department of Education,” Kline said in a statement. “The White House is using scare tactics and budget gimmicks to kill K-12 education reform, because they know a new law will lead to less control in the hands of Washington bureaucrats and more control in the hands of parents and education leaders.”
The Title 1 proposal in the House is similar to one proposed by Senate Republicans led by Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. But unlike the House, the Senate panel is writing a bipartisan education bill, and it is unclear whether the Title I proposal will be in the final version.
Muñoz would not say whether President Obama would veto any bill that contained the change in Title I distribution. She also took issue with the funding levels in the bill endorsed by the House committee, saying that the funding was inadequate and that most school districts have yet to recover to the funding levels that existed before 2012, when sequestration resulted in across-the-board federal budget cuts. A coalition of 115 national education groups complained this week that the Republican plan would harm the ability of schools to improve student achievement.