Education reform will be a hot topic in Congress as early as this week as dual bills will likely be debated, continuing but offering modifications to the controversial Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law by President Johnson as a “War on Poverty” measure in 1965. Since then the bill has been modified on several occasions, with the most recent reauthorization in 2001 being more commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since NCLB’s introduction, the emphasis on and the punitive nature of the testing standards have resulted in widespread criticism. The current debate in both houses has resulted in unusual divisions, as the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union and several civil rights groups, both key Democratic supporters, are at odds over testing requirements. Meanwhile, business associations and two influential Republican lobby groups, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action oppose the reforms, citing government overreach, wishing instead to add provisions that keep the federal government at arm’s-length from the education system.
The House of Representatives attempted a to reauthorize NCLB, pending some modifications that became known as the Student Success Act in the previous congress, passing the House of Representatives in a narrow vote, only to be stalled in the Senate. Republicans in the House are attempting to reintroduce the bill. Among other modifications, the Student Success Act will give states more control over the educational system, promote charter schools, and eliminate federal takeovers of failing schools. Despite the changes, the aforementioned Republican lobby groups have warned House Republicans that voting in favor of the bill would hurt their Conservative rating score. The house may also vote on two amendments to the bill as well, the A-Plus Act and Title I portability. The A-plus act would allow states the ability to opt-out of federal standards altogether, and Title I portability allows for more school choice, requiring federal funds to follow each child depending on which school he attends as opposed to a top-down aggregate allocation of resources. The president and House Democrats uniformly oppose the measure and it is unknown if the House has enough support to pass the bill given the inter-party disagreement.
The debate over the Senate modification, although quite different, has faced infighting among key Democratic constituents. The debate is over testing requirements and its aftermath. The Senate Education Committee which includes noted libertarian, Rand Paul (R-KY), and leading progressive, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), voted unanimously this spring in favor of revising the NCLB provisions. The Senate reform bill, titled the Every Child Achieves Act, although keeping annual testing requirements, will leave it up to the states as to what to do with the test results. The NEA wants the government to move away from the current testing environment, which it has labeled as “toxic,” and instead use a “dashboard” of indicators to gain a more holistic perspective of a school’s performance. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, along with several other groups, however, penned a recent letter to the Senate stating that the bill does not contain appropriate provisions that identify poor schools. The groups favor the current testing standards as a means to hold underachieving schools accountable for failing its students. Kati Haycock, president of the independent non-profit, Education trust, noted the conflict saying, “The highest priority of civil rights community for improving this law is also the National Education Association’s highest priority to defeat. There is a friction but from our perspective, that’s not the end of the story, and we’re working day in and day out to work to that middle ground.”
Although containing divergent objectives, the two bills in combination will likely make education reform a key issue over the summer legislative session. It will likely be difficult to find the middle ground that Haycock is seeking. The fractious nature of both parties over the issue will likely make for tough compromises, and may even fray the traditional left-right divide over education. It will likely depend on whether or not the antipathy towards the status-quo supersedes the specific interests of the individual member of congress and his or her constituents. If anything though, it should bring the issue of NCLB back into the national and media consciousness.
Education Week (blog) – Lauren Camera
The Hill – Frederick M. Hess and Max Eden
Wall Street Journal Law Blog – Caroline Porter
Washington Post – Emma Brown