Senators Unveil Competing Bills to Reauthorize NCLB

For nearly 300 weeks, No Child Left Behind has been in a legislative slumber on Capitol Hill.  That’s how long it’s been since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), expired. Now, in the span of just two days, Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate have unveiled competing plans to revamp NCLB. It marks the first significant signs that NCLB might be awakening from its deep sleep. 

Although President Obama released a proposed blueprint for reauthorization of NCLB in 2010, no significant action has come from Congress. When Congress missed a fall 2011 deadline to pass a revised bill, the administration found a way around the legislative process: waivers. States could avoid No Child Left Behind's annual targets for student performance if they agreed to implement components of the administration's education agenda, such as evaluating teachers in part based on their students' test scores.

On Tuesday, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, introduced S1094, The Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013. The bill reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and is co-sponsored by every Democrat on the committee.

No Child Left Behind has been criticized since its last reauthorization in 2002 for presenting a myriad of travails for schools, students, and educators, including setting inflexible benchmarks without taking into consideration the different needs of schools and without recognizing student progress; mandating the same federal sanctions for all schools that created a pressure to “teach to the test;” requiring states and schools to adhere to prescriptive, Washington-generated accountability models; and forcing school districts to spend money on activities that did not make sense for all students or schools. 

Today, Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led by former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, responded by introducing their own version of a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Alexander's proposal would require states to prepare students for college or careers, but would ban the U.S. Department of Education from prescribing academic standards.He contends his legislation would take decisions about whether schools and teachers are succeeding or failing.out of Washington and back to states.

In a news release, Sen. Alexander said, “Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education has become so congested with federal mandates that it has become, in effect, a national school board. The best way to help 50 million children in 100,000 public schools learn what they need to know and be able to do is to fix that responsibility squarely where it belongs—on parents, teachers, communities and states."

He added, "Unfortunately, the Democratic alternative would create more congestion by freezing into law existing federal mandates and adding 20 new programs and 80 new requirements on states and school districts.  One symbol of our different approaches is that the Democratic bill is 1,150 pages; ours is 220 pages.”

 Education Week noted some of the major differences in the two bills:

The Harkin bill would require states to create accountability systems that essentially build on the administration's waivers (which are in place in 37 states plus D.C. so far), meaning that states would have to set goals for student achievement and come up with some sort of system to help turn around the schools that are struggling the most.

The Alexander bill, on the other hand, would continue to require states to test in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but the senator is counting on transparency to be the main lever for school improvement. And under the Harkin bill, schools would be on the hook for helping the bottom five percent turn around—plus fixing another 10 percent of schools with big achievement gaps. There's nothing like that in the Alexander bill, which is co-sponsored by GOP Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

Other differences:

  • The Harkin bill would call for districts to craft teacher-evaluation systems based on student achievement. The evaluations wouldn't have to be used for hiring and firing, just for professional development and equitable distribution of teachers. The Alexander bill would eliminate the provision on "highly qualified" teachers, and allow states to use Title II to develop teacher evaluation systems that take into account student outcomes, but it wouldn't be a requirement.
  • The Alexander bill includes a public-school choice option, which would allow federal Title I dollars to follow a child to any public school they want, but not to a private school or for outside options like tutoring. That's not in the Harkin proposal.
  • The Alexander bill includes specific language saying the U.S. Secretary of Education can't require districts to adopt certain tests, standards, or accountability systems.
  • The Alexander bill would get rid of maintenance of effort, which requires districts to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal funds. But it would not get rid of supplement not supplant, which says, essentially, that federal funds can't replace local dollars.