Outnumbered by Republicans, Democratic lawmakers are jockeying to get their views heard as Congress moves ahead on revising the much-maligned No Child Left Behind education law.
With votes anticipated in the House and Senate, House Democrats plan their own Capitol Hill forum on Thursday for changing the law — a protest of Republicans’ handling of the issue.
In the Senate, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, came out against a provision in a draft bill circulated by the panel’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., that would allow federal dollars to follow low-income students to a different public school.
Annual testing requirements, Common Core standards and school choice expansion are all hot-button issues wrapped into the debate. Both sides heartily agree that the landmark law needs to be fixed, but tension centers on the level of federal involvement in classifying and fixing schools.
Complicating the issue, allegiances don’t clearly fall along party lines. Among Republicans, for example, some members want to essentially eliminate the federal role in education, but GOP-friendly business groups side with civil rights groups in support of a strong federal role. Teachers’ unions, historically aligned with Democrats, have criticized the Obama administration’s handling of education policy as having too much of an emphasis on testing.
The No Child Left Behind law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, was designed to bring equity into schools and mandated that students in grades three to eight be tested annually in reading and math and once again in high school. Schools that didn’t show annual growth faced consequences and every student was to be proficient by 2014.
Deciding that the goal was unattainable, the Obama administration in 2012 started granting waivers to states allowing them to avoid some of the more stringent requirements of the law if they met conditions such as adopting meaningful teacher evaluation systems and college- and career-ready standards like Common Core. The standards spell out what skills students in each grade should master in reading and math.
Widespread disagreement over how to change the law has kept Congress from getting a bill to President Barack Obama.
With Republicans now controlling both the House and the Senate, congressional leaders are hopeful they can get a bill passed this year. That’s left House Democrats frustrated with the speed at which it’s moving.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, on Tuesday released a bill to update the law similar to one passed by the House in 2013 without one Democrat on board, and scheduled a Feb. 11 committee meeting to consider it. The bill maintains federal testing requirements, but it strips the federal government of much of its authority — including limiting the education secretary’s role in “coercing” standards. A vote is expected in late February.
Kline said the committee has had more than a dozen hearings over the last four years. “Americans have waited long enough for reforms that will fix a broken education system,” he said. Like Alexander, Kline has expressed concern that a strong federal role in education stifles education advancement and innovation in states.
But Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Va., the newly appointed ranking Democrat on the committee, accused House Republicans of a “hasty, partisan push” to rewrite the law with legislation that would “undermine equity and accountability in public schools.” He announced that Democrats were having their own forum with a panel of education experts.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that Kline’s bill would “turn back the clock on growth.”
Much of the discussion in the Senate has focused on whether the federal testing mandates should continue. Alexander has said he’s willing to listen to both sides.
Murray supports continuing the testing mandate but opposes the provision in Alexander’s draft bill that would allow $14.5 billion in Title I money to follow 11 million low-income children if they switch public schools. Murray said policies like that would drain “much-needed resources away from struggling students and the highest-poverty schools.”
After speaking Wednesday at a school choice event at the Brookings Institution, Alexander told reporters that he expects to see amendments related to issues such as the Common Core standards and allowing vouchers that allow public money to be used on private tuition.
He’s hopeful by the end of the month he can get a bill out of his committee.
“We have to have a bipartisan result. Otherwise we won’t have a law,” Alexander said.
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