Congress finally close to vote on new education law

Jennifer C. Kerr
Associated Press

Washington — Congress is finally close to a vote to rewrite the outdated and highly criticized No Child Left Behind education law.

The compromise legislation, approved Thursday by House and Senate negotiators, would sharply reduce the federal role in education policy but still require students to be tested in reading and math in grades three to eight, and once in high school.

The conference committee action paves the way for a vote in the House during the first week of December, and days later in the Senate.

The bill would let states decide whether or how to use student test performance to assess teachers and students, ending federal efforts to tie the scores to teacher evaluations, something teachers’ unions have railed against. At the same time, it would embrace state-driven protections to ensure that all students, no matter their race or background, have access to a quality education.

Under the bill, the Education Department may not mandate or give states incentives to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, such as the college and career-ready curriculum guidelines known as Common Core.

But important to Democrats, the conference bill includes accountability measures that would require states to intervene in the nation’s lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high school dropout factories and schools with persistent achievement gaps.

The bill does not include so-called portability, which would have allowed federal money to follow low-income children to public schools of their choice instead of current law, which has those dollars remain at the struggling schools. Republicans wanted the money to follow the student, and it was included in the version of the education bill that narrowly passed the House in July.

Instead, the compromise bill would allow for a small pilot program that would let federal money move with students in some school districts.

An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the measure that emerged from the conference committee was an improvement over the versions that passed the House and Senate this summer. But the official, who could not speak publicly because details of the bill were still under review, stopped short of saying whether President Barack Obama would sign in it.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chaired the conference committee, said the compromise legislation would “replace a failed approach to education with a new approach that will reduce the federal role, restore local control, and empower parents.”

Kline’s Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, praised the bill’s accountability safeguards. “This agreement ensures that when achievement gaps are found, meaningful action will be taken to intervene and support the needs of students,” he said.

Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, sponsors of the original bill in the Senate, said the compromise measure marked a proud moment for Congress that would help end uncertainty in federal education policy.

Included in the new bill was an amendment from Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, aimed at reducing over-testing in the nation’s schools. His amendment encourages states to set caps on the total amount of time kids spend taking tests.

Bennett says the federal requirement for assessments isn’t the problem, but that it resulted in additional layers of state and district level tests, and some of those may be redundant or unnecessary.

The committee will have the full bill ready for lawmakers to read by Nov. 30, followed by votes in both chambers.

Congress has tried for years to update the Bush-era law.

It expired in 2007, though its mandates remained in place. Critics have complained there is too much testing and the law is too punitive for schools deemed to be failing. In 2012, the Obama administration began issuing waivers to dozens of states to get around some of the law’s strictest requirements when it became clear they would not be met.