Students in Atlanta take part in an after-school study program in preparation for state standardized tests in 2013. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

THE FEDERAL government each year gives states about $37 billion for elementary and secondary schools and students. Of that, about $15 billion goes to Title I, which is intended to help local school districts improve achievement for underserved students. Taxpayers have a right to expect results from that investment; one would hope their elected representatives would agree. Remarkably, though, as they debate a renewal of the No Child Left Behind law, many legislators are fighting to abandon any such accountability. Their success would mark a defeat for the nation’s neediest students.

Congress this week began debating the long-overdue reauthorization of the 2001 law that was a landmark achievement of former president George W. Bush and Democrats including the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). On the Senate floor is a bill that in April won unanimous, bipartisan approval from the Senate education committee. House Republicans are expected to try to revive legislation that earlier was withdrawn for lack of support.

The Senate’s Every Child Achieves Act was shaped by committee leaders Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). It is clearly preferable to the House measure that would undo the education gains of No Child Left Behind and that the Obama administration has rightly threatened to veto. The Senate proposal would preserve annual testing of students, broken down by race, income and special needs, with results made public. That would help prevent a return to the days before No Child Left Behind when districts could hide their failure to teach minority and other disadvantaged students by submerging those results in schoolwide averages.

But what if results show a state failing to do right by its poorest students? There the Senate proposal falls miserably short: There would be no consequences whatsoever. No Child Left Behind was too rigid in prescribing interventions, but the proper response is not to remove any and all requirements to improve. The Senate bill would allow schools to turn their backs on minority, disadvantaged or special needs students with no impact on the federal largesse. Dozens of civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, have criticized the bill for that reason; so do business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which know it is foolish as well as immoral to let talent go to waste. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the administration cannot support the bill as it stands but stopped short of saying whether the president would veto it.

Congress should heed the call for changes that build in accountability and protect the rights of all students to a quality education.