Congressional Progress on a “No Child Left Behind” Rewrite

Congress is making real progress on the first major rewrite of education law in more than a dozen years. These efforts may portend a rare legislative success for both Republicans and Democrats in a divided Washington.

With both chambers now having passed their own bills, lawmakers are turning their attention to what will be a difficult conference negotiation to craft compromise legislation that satisfies both the House and Senate and is acceptable to the president. The legislation would overhaul the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Many critics in Congress and the education community argue that the No Child Left Behind Act usurped local prerogatives, placed unwarranted control of education in the federal government and forced educators to test students too much.

On July 16, the Senate overwhelmingly passed its version of a bill, S. 1177, by a vote of 81-17. The House passed its version, H.R. 5, the week before with no Democratic support and President Obama’s threats to veto the legislation.

“The House has obviously been a mess,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Politico. “They have a bill that has no Democratic support. That’s about politics, that’s not about policy—they couldn’t even get their own members to sign on to that bill.”

The House bill would consolidate almost 70 federal education programs into the Local Academic Flexibility Grant, a block grant allowing states to create their own education agendas. The Senate version adds some new programs, including more directed at early education, and it eliminates or consolidates others.

The chambers still have to work out some significant differences between the bills. At the forefront of debate between Republicans and Democrats is the appropriate role for the federal government in education programs, which traditionally are viewed as a responsibility of state and local governments.

Both bills preserve the annual reading and math tests required under current law, but the states would be given greater flexibility to determine how those assessment tests are used to measure school and teacher performance. The Senate version requires states to use the annual tests as an accountability factor; the House bill does not.

The Senate bill includes a provision requiring states to match certain levels of federal funding called the Maintenance of Effort requirement. The House bill does not include this provision, raising the specter that states may cut educational funding, expecting that the federal government will pay for these expenses.

The House bill eliminates grant funding for the School Improvement Grant program, while the Senate bill maintains it. The Scholl Improvement Grant program requires low-performing schools to implement rigorous school turnaround models, such as requiring the dismissal of the principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff to qualify for funding. The House bill instead dedicates those funds for the Title I program, which provides financial assistance to schools with high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure they meet state academic standards.

Both bills prohibit the federal government from imposing specific academic standards, such as common core, as a condition of receiving federal funding for education. Opponents of these provisions have called for more state autonomy in this area and have viewed the requirement of academic standards as a federal intrusion into the classroom.

Leaders from both chambers believe there is enough bipartisan common ground to shape a product that can make it to Obama’s desk by the end of the year.

“I’d like to work with the House and come up with something that the president can sign pretty quickly,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in a July 16 statement to Congressional Quarterly. “We want a result, and under our constitutional system that takes a presidential signature, and … we’ve stayed in touch with him.”

Conference negotiators still face challenges in reconciling both chambers’ bills, but all indications point toward a consensus on the issue of shifting more control of public schools to the states.