WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. John Kline is making a push to reform the federal No Child Left Behind Act for the third year in a row, and he's likely to encounter the same problems that derailed previous attempts.
Most members of Congress agree the 11-year-old law has passed its prime, but partisan divide and in-party rumbling among Republicans have blocked efforts to replace it.
Much to Kline's chagrin, the failure to pass legislation has allowed the Obama administration to sidestep Congress and set the national agenda on K-12 education.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has issued waivers to 37 states, including Minnesota, granting them a reprieve from the most rigid demands of the law. In exchange for the waivers, states agree to make changes in education policy endorsed by President Obama.
"Our system is not supposed to have one person determine education policy for this country," said Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "That's what Congress is for."
But since the law expired in 2007, partisanship has trumped compromise, with the GOP-led House and Democrat-controlled Senate passing a series of party-line bills that stalled after passing one chamber. To complicate matters for Kline, a faction of conservative Republicans bent on dismantling No Child Left Behind has rebuked his efforts to change the legislation.
For all its perceived flaws, the law first championed by President George W. Bush is having its intended effect — improving education for poorly performing students, said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
But complaints about the law's demands continue to mount. As the standards tick upward, schools are struggling to keep up. By next year, the law requires that all schools bring 100 percent of their students to proficiency in math and English and will impose funding cuts on those that fail to do so.
That, Loveless said, is "a utopian goal and it's not going to happen."
Kline has heard similar sentiments from educators since he was elected to Congress in 2002.
"People were excited with the notion of leaving no child behind … but the ink was hardly dry on the bill and there were problems," Kline said.
A reauthorized bill would render the requirements obsolete, but roadblocks remain.
A House vote looms this month on Kline's rewrite, which would retain the No Child Left Behind testing requirements, but leave the school improvement decisions to states. It also would combine a number of education programs, including those for English language learners and migrant children, to give districts more freedom in how they spend federal funds.
The proposed fix is backed by the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association and education experts such as Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute.
Kline's bill is a sharp departure from legislation backed by Senate Democrats, which would leave the current No Child Left Behind remedies in place.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of urban school districts that includes Minneapolis and St. Paul, oppose Kline's bill, saying it would weaken accountability of schools that serve low income, minority and special education students.
House groups separate from Kline's committee want to let states drop the federal testing and accountability requirements and develop their own plans.
When Bush proposed the act in 2001, proponents said that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals could close the achievement gap among disadvantaged students. Co-authored in the House by Rep. John Boehner — now Speaker Boehner — and passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, the bill vastly expanded the federal role in schools through yearly tests, progress reports and funding tied to results.
Since then, GOP goals have changed. "The Republicans today are much more conservative in the House," Loveless said. "They don't believe in the heavy hand of the federal government in education."
By February 2012, Obama and Duncan began issuing the first round of waivers to No Child Left Behind, allowing states to adopt specific models for turning around underperforming schools and to tie teacher evaluations in part to student test scores.
If waivers are granted in the eight states where applications are still pending, 90 percent of the states and more than 97 percent of the nation's schools soon will operate under waivers.
Kline maintains the waivers have done little to remedy problems and that the Obama administration hasn't ensured that states are adhering to the improvement plans.
Lawmakers on both sides have criticized the piecemeal approach to reworking No Child Left Behind. But Democrats prefer the waiver model to the Republican bills currently up for debate, said U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, lead Democrat on the House Education Committee.
'It's a lost opportunity'
Duncan has defended the waiver system in his testimony before Congress, saying the administration is doing its best, without much help from lawmakers, to aid students and schools suffering under the strain of No Child Left Behind.
"Providing waivers was always, always our Plan B," he said during a Senate oversight hearing in February.
So far, there is little sense in Washington that Congress will broker a bipartisan deal to halt or reverse the spread of waivers, according to Hess, Loveless and Miller.
"It's a lost opportunity," Miller said.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell