There is nearly universal agreement that the controversial No Child Left Behind federal education law should be changed. But while congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle agree on that point, they are worlds apart on what those changes should be.
The House version of a replacement bill would substantially roll back federal influence in education, while a Senate committee measure would strike some of the most onerous elements of NCLB while preserving its strengths. Though parts of both bills need work, on balance the Senate approach is preferable.
Last month, the Strengthening America’s Schools Act was approved by the Senate Education Committee. Authored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the bill supports a number of the Obama administration’s education plans, such as increased support for early education and Race to the Top competitive federal grants.
The bill would maintain some student testing requirements but give states more flexibility in how they conduct the exams. It also would continue NCLB-driven data collection to monitor how all groups of students are doing academically.
In contrast, 10 days ago the House passed the Student Success Act without a single Democratic vote and with 12 “no” votes from Republicans. Authored by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chair of the House Education Committee, the bill would roll back the federal government’s involvement in education and weaken the education secretary’s authority.
It also would eliminate numerous administration-backed education initiatives and delete a requirement that states evaluate teachers based on student outcomes, making those evaluations optional. Many Republicans want to eliminate federal influence on any local school decisions.
But the federal government should have a continued role to help drive some overarching goals in education. If left to individual states, the nation might not have Title I for lower-income kids, Title IX for gender fairness, or rules requiring education for disabled students.
An unorthodox coalition of groups — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s two largest teachers unions, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the NAACP — opposed the House measure, saying it did not provide enough accountability for parents, students or taxpayers.
The House bill would limit the authority the education secretary has to grant the types of NCLB waivers that 39 states, including Minnesota, have received in exchange for adopting reforms. Waiver critics say they represent an overreach of executive authority. Yet those waivers were necessary because of congressional foot- dragging on reauthorization.
In some ways, the recent House debate was historic. It was the first time since NCLB was passed in 2001 that an education bill has made it to the floor of Congress. Still, NCLB, an amendment of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act that governs federal education funding, expired in 2007. Since then, a gridlocked Congress has made repeated unsuccessful attempts to reauthorize the law.
Given its inability to get things done, the most recent vote is as far as the bill is likely to go. The Senate likely won’t approve the House version, which President Obama has vowed to veto.
There are a number of areas on which lawmakers could agree, such as eliminating the more punitive provisions of NCLB and changing some unrealistic proficiency deadlines. Despite that, partisanship is again taking precedence over cooperation. That’s not the best way to set policy — in education or any other area.