Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., sitting next to the committee’s ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., listen during a hearing looking at ways to fix the No Child Left Behind law earlier this year. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Both the House and Senate will consider major education bills this week. Lyndsey Layton covers national education issues for The Washington Post and understands the underlying issues as well as anyone. In the latest PostWorthy Q&A, conducted by email Monday night, she pulls back the curtain on key sticking points in negotiations, reflects on Arne Duncan’s legacy as Secretary of Education and previews last-minute efforts by conservatives to limit the further limit the federal role.


Lyndsey Layton covers national education issues for the Post

“Common Core” has become toxic in Republican politics. What might the GOP Congress do to curtail the Department of Education’s ability to advance or incentivize the initiative?

Actually, both the bipartisan bill in the Senate, written by Lamar Alexander (R) and Patty Murray (D), and the GOP House bill crafted by John Kline (R-Minn.) explicitly prohibit the Education secretary from having any influence over state academic standards. So it’s likely that whatever legislation makes it out of conference will include some language that prohibits the federal government from getting involved in academic standards.

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What are the biggest differences between the House and Senate bills?

Both bills would transfer power over education decisions from the federal government to the states and local school districts, but the House version would go farther – to the point that Democrats, civil rights groups, teachers unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce fear it would hand too much authority to states. They argue that the federal government should maintain some kind of oversight over local schools, otherwise some states will ignore the needs of the kids who are the hardest (and most costly) to educate: poor kids, kids with disabilities and English language learners.

In general, how much power is the federal Education Department poised to lose under the legislation now being considered?

Arne Duncan became arguably the most influential education secretary since the job was created in 1979 by exploiting two levers. He got $4.3 billion from Congress – Recovery Act money designed to keep the economy afloat after the 2008 recession – and created Race to the Top, a national contest that required cash-starved states to adopt his education policies just in order to compete for a chance at a grant. Then, he saw that states were struggling mightily under No Child Left Behind and, while Congress dithered on a rewrite, Duncan handed out conditional waivers that excused states from the law – as long as they adopted his favored policies. By doing that, Duncan was able to get 43 states and D.C. to adopt the Common Core State Standards, to require that states evaluate their teachers based in part on student test scores, and to dictate how states should try to improve their worst performing schools, among other things.

It’s a remarkable record, but now the pendulum is swinging back.

Under the legislation that is now under debate, much of that power evaporates. The federal Department of Education would not be able to attach conditions to waivers, nor would it be able to influence state decisions about academic standards, teacher evaluation systems or what to do about their worst schools.


Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a press conference in May (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Hill sources say that the Senate has the votes needed to pass the education bill that sailed through committee, with the bipartisan support of HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Everyone from Rand Paul to Elizabeth Warren signed on. But it’s not clear if there are currently the votes in the House. The bill already got pulled earlier this year because of conservative objections. Who are some of the key House members to watch in the days ahead? What do they want?

Some conservatives – along with the Heritage Foundation and FreedomWorks – say the House bill doesn’t go far enough to weaken the federal influence in education. They want to amend the bill so that states could take federal dollars but opt out of any federal requirements. Reps. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) are expected to offer an amendment to basically block grant federal dollars to states with no strings attached.

How much actual debate do you expect over education on the floors of the House and/or Senate this week?

I expect debate in the House to be limited, maybe lasting a day. It’s a partisan bill, and it will set the conservative limits on the right, kind of setting up the parameter for the conference later to come between the two houses. Because the Senate bill is a bipartisan bill, I expect amendments from Democrats and Republicans and debate is likely to last at least a week. Maybe even longer when you consider that only 28 of the 100 members were in the Senate when No Child Left Behind passed in 2001. For many senators, this is their first opportunity to debate K-12 education – an issue that is quite important to their constituents, so they may have plenty to say.

One of the biggest sticking points is over who gets to define what constitutes a “failing” school. The Senate bill leaves it up to the states to decide, but some civil rights groups are worried that states will water down the definition so much that it will be virtually impossible to fail. Why do they care?

These groups are worried about a return to the bad old days – pre-No Child Left Behind – when it was pretty easy (and not uncommon) for states to hide the fact that poor kids, disabled kids and English learners lagged behind their more affluent counterparts. Higher performing kids would pull up the average test score for a school. And if that’s all you saw, you might think the school was doing just fine. Let’s face it, political leaders want to be able to tell their constituents that the schools are OK and the kids are alright. But if you drilled down deeper in many places, you could see there was stark gap in performance between these subgroups of kids. So the civil rights groups are worried about those kids getting ignored once again.

The president has threatened to veto a final education bill if it includes “portability.” This is currently in the House version. What does this mean, and why is this such a poison bill for the administration?

Portability is one of those issues that sounds deadly dull but is actually important to how schools function. Since 1965, the federal government has sent tax dollars to states to help pay for the education of poor kids. Under current law, public schools get federal dollars according to a formula based on the number of poor kids enrolled. The idea is that schools with a concentration of poor kids have more needs than schools with mostly middle- or upper-income kids.

The House GOP bill would change the way the money is distributed so that federal dollars would “follow the child.” That means, if a poor student transfers from a high-poverty school to a wealthier one, the money would follow the kid to the new public school, regardless of whether that school needed the extra money. Democrats say this would devastate high poverty schools and is a first step on the road to private school vouchers. For all these reasons, President Obama has threatened to veto the House bill.

Over in the Senate, Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) is likely to offer a portability amendment to the Alexander/Murray bill, but his version would allow the federal dollars to “follow the child” to private schools.