House GOP pushes through curbs on No Child Left Behind

The House bill rolls back much of the accountability requirements for the No Child Left Behind law. It also locks in lower levels of federal funding. The Obama administration threatened a veto.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio, smiles as he walks to the floor of the House of Representatives as the GOP majority passed legislation to replace the No Child Left Behind law, in Washington, Friday, July 19. Supporters of HR 5, the Student Success Act, say it restores flexibility to local school districts, gives broader choice to parents, and encourages innovation by scaling back the federal footprint.

Six years after Congress was supposed to reauthorize the federal No Child Left Behind education law, the US House of Representatives passed a bill – with no Democratic support – that would roll back much of the law’s accountability requirements and lock in lower levels of education funding.

Supporters of HR 5, the Student Success Act, say it restores flexibility to local school districts, gives broader choice to parents, and encourages innovation by scaling back the federal footprint. Opponents say it would reverse longstanding efforts to improve education, particularly for the most disadvantaged groups of children.

In order for the law, formally the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to be reauthorized, both the House and Senate would have to come to some agreement, but the differences between the House bill and the Senate bill (which has not yet come up for a vote) are so vast that many education stakeholders believe reauthorization is still a long way off.

The Obama administration issued a veto threat in advance of Friday’s House vote. The bill passed by a vote of 221 to 207. Twelve Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the bill.

Currently, dozens of states are operating under waivers from the US Department of Education, which relieve them from some provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that many agree are flawed and onerous. Those waivers come with conditions that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sees as key to keeping states moving forward on boosting standards to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers.

To many Republicans, the Department has overstepped its bounds with such conditions, a point made by Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, when he urged his colleagues to pass the bill Friday. “It’s time for the Congress …  to step up and do its job … and get the [Obama] administration out of the business of writing education policy,” he said.

Rep. George Miller (D) of California, the top Democrat on the education committee, fiercely opposed the bill Friday, and argued for a substitute proposal, saying the fight was “about education justice and whether or not every student … is going to have a high quality education that no longer depends on their zipcode.”

In addition to letting states and districts off the hook for key accountability measures, Representative Miller said, the bill would lock in sequestration-level funding, cuts that would amount to “stealing from the poorest people in this country to achieve deficit reduction.”

Not only are such funding cuts “unsustainable,” but HR 5 “lacks a number of fundamental things to ensure equity in education,” says Kate Tromble, director of legislative affairs at Education Trust in Washington, which advocates for disadvantaged students. Along with many other civil rights and education groups, Education Trust criticizes HR 5 for taking away mandated goals to raise achievement and close gaps for groups of students such as those with low incomes, disabilities, or language disadvantages.

The one element HR 5 had that Education Trust supported was a requirement for teacher evaluations to include measures of student progress, but that provision was removed by an amendment on Thursday.

The current waiver system has been a “mixed bag” and should be temporary, but it’s better than what the system would look like under HR 5, Ms. Tromble says.

But from many local school boards’ point of view, HR 5 is on target in its broad philosophy, says Michael Resnick, associate executive director of the National School Boards Association, which supports the bill.

While the Senate bill would “continue a very top-down approach,” he says, the House bill says “the people closer to education in their communities should have better flexibility to design programs that meet their needs.”

The lower funding levels in HR5 would be a concern to school boards, he says, but he would hope those could be addressed in any reconciliation of House and Senate bills.

The School Boards Association would also like to see in any final bill the continuation of what’s known as “maintenance of effort.” HR 5 removes that requirement on states to maintain their own basic education funding levels in order to receive federal funds, so that the federal money is additional, rather than a substitute for state funds to education.

The debate over the House bill is representative of the partisan “schizophrenia” that has surrounded the federal role in education for several decades, says Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington.

While HR 5 specifically would prohibit the Secretary of Education from imposing conditions on states regarding curriculum standards and assessments, Ms. Ferguson says, the move to the Common Core State Standards has actually been driven by state initiative and is largely embraced as a helpful tool for educators.

Among the provisions of HR 5 are the following:

• Elimination of the Adequate Yearly Progress measure of NCLB, allowing states to set up their own accountability systems

• Elimination of a mandate that states intervene in poorly performing schools

• Continuation of annual report cards disaggregated by race and other subgroups

• Consolidation of dozens of programs into a flexible block grant.

• A provision to allow states to let Title I funding for low-income children follow them to whatever public school they attend.

The Senate bill by Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, which passed the Senate Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that he chairs, attempts to address the flaws of NCLB while continuing the administration’s approach to education accountability and reform. It also includes support for early childhood education. 

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