A lengthy overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act passed through a Senate education committee Wednesday, with senators voting 10-12 along party lines.
The "Strengthening America's Schools Act" is an over 1,000-page bill authored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. It rolls back some of the more stringent aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act, but keeps in place the requirement that states set and report performance targets for their students. Senators sparred over the federal government's role in education when considering the overhaul, with Republicans calling Harkin's bill a federal overreach.
"We've got a huge difference between the two sides on this," said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). "I don't think we're headed anywhere other than a couple of days we spend in a big room highlighting the differences."
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the committee's ranking member, introduced his own legislation last week. He offered it as an amendment during the markup, but it failed Tuesday. "It places in effect a national school board," Alexander said of the current act. "We have some disagreements but we have a process … for resolving disagreements. .. We'll go to the floor and as long as we're allowed to have amendments … I would hope we could go to conference with whatever result we had."
Harkin says he intends to bring his bill to the Senate floor sometime this year -- hopefully by the fall -- and would allow amendments to be made during that process. But even if the overhaul makes it through the floor vote, it is unlikely to be signed into law because the predominant legislative vision in the House varies significantly. On the House side, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the Education & the Workforce Committee, introduced a bill similar to Alexander's and has scheduled a markup for next week.
If no alternative is passed, the current No Child Left Behind law will continue to stand, along with the Obama administration's waiver system. In the fall of 2011, the Obama administration announced that it would allow states to apply for waivers from some of NCLB's most stringent provisions in exchange for agreeing to adopt some of its education policies, such as teacher evaluations that take student test scores into account.
No Child Left Behind is the name of the 2001 bipartisan reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The measure, which expired in 2007, amplified the federal government's footprint in the country's schools by requiring that schools with low-income students meet annual goals, as determined by standardized tests, to qualify for federal money. If schools do not meet these annual goals, they face escalating consequences. Since then, the law has been criticized as overly punitive and for creating a culture of "teaching to the test."
Now, the House and Senate are working to rewrite the bill in the context of tighter fiscal conditions and the Obama administration's waiver system that all but gutted the law.
The vote followed two days of debate and amendments. The committee voted for measures that would add a reporting category for military students, and it voted down private school vouchers, the dissolution of the "Race to the Top" competition and the curtailment of the waivers.
Some Republicans used the vote as a referendum on the Obama administration's expansion of executive power. Sen. Roberts (R-Kan.) dropped a heavy binder of the state's waiver documents on the table to illustrate that the waiver process resulted in regulation "purgatory" for his state. Kirk chimed in, saying his binder was heavier. "This is reality," Kirk said, as he pointed to his papers. "This is not an abstract thing. This is today. This is what empowering the secretary of education has caused." Despite his statements, Roberts' amendment to curtail the secretary's waiver powers was voted down.
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who served as the committee's ranking member until this year and collaborated with Harkin on an ill-fated bipartisan NCLB bill in 2011, revealed that he and Harkin had met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to avoid the implementation of the waivers. "It would eliminate the impetus to finish up the bill," Enzi said. He called the waivers "blackmail" for requiring states to agree to certain Obama education policies in order to enter the waiver system.
Harkin defended the waivers, even though his home state's application was not approved. "To have turned all these schools into turmoil," he said, because they didn't meet their annual performance goals, "would have been disastrous."