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House passes No Child Left Behind rewrite, almost a complete accountability U-turn

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After two days of partisan debate on an issue that used to bring Democrats and Republicans together in a kumbaya chorus, the House of Representatives passed a GOP-only reauthorization of the long-stalled No Child Left Behind Act.

The bill, approved 221-207, with no Democratic support, would maintain the NCLB law’s signature testing schedule and its practice of breaking out student-achievement data by particular groups of students (such as English-language learners and students in special education).

But otherwise it’s almost a complete U-turn, policy-wise, from the existing federal school accountability law. States and school districts would get a lot more say on how they hold schools accountable for the progress of all students, including special populations. That has advocates for some school districts (including the American Association of School Administrators) pretty happy. But civil rights organizations, the business community, and urban districts are not on board. More on what’s in the bill and who likes and hates the bill here.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. The Democratic-controlled Senate education committee approved its own completely partisan and very different version earlier this year. The bill’s author, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is hoping to move that legislation to the floor of the Senate this year but it hasn’t yet been scheduled. It’s unclear if the Obama administration, which has its own waiver plan, even wants a reauthorization. And the president has threatened to veto the House GOP legislation.

Yesterday, a key vote illustrated the perils in passing a partisan bill. The measure won support from some of the most conservative members of the House GOP caucus only after Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the bill’s author, gave up the ghost on a policy near and dear to his heart: Requiring school districts to use student outcomes to measure teacher effectiveness. Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and Steve Scalise, R-La., persuaded Kline to make such evaluations optional, not mandatory. And those conservative lawmakers were in lock-step with the National Education Association on this issue.

Ultimately, 12 Republicans crossed party lines to vote against the provision. The detractors included some northeastern GOP lawmakers, such as Reps. Michael Grimm and Tom Reed, both of New York, who had worked with the NEA on amendments. And in a somewhat unusual move, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the speaker of the House, and a key architect of NCLB, voted to support the bill. (Typically, the speaker abstains from voting on most legislation.)

Perhaps the high-point today—the final day of debate—came during an exchange between Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, on an amendment introduced by Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the majority leader. The amendment would allow parents to take Title I dollars to any public school of their choice, including a charter.

Cantor argued this Title I portability amendment would make a huge difference for children who are caught in failing schools. But Miller argued that NCLB already allows those students to transfer to the school of their choice—and the vast majority don’t bother to take districts up on that flexibility.

“It’s a decision that doesn’t work for them because of lack of transportation in poor neighborhoods,” Miller argued. He noted that Cantor had originally wanted to allow studentes to transfer to private schools as well and called the policy an “imitation voucher.”

The Cantor amendment was ultimately passed on a voice vote. The AASA and the National School Boards Association, two traditional education groups that support the bill but not the Cantor amendment, are continuing to endorse the legislation, even though Title I portability is now part of the deal. Essentially, the organizations are holding their noses and hoping that the school-choice language gets scrapped in conference. (If there ever is a conference. Which is a very big if. More on all that here.)

Here’s NSBA’s official response to the Title I portability addition:

“NSBA will support [the bill] in view of the overwhelming shift in direction to ensure that greater flexibility and governance will be restored to local school boards. While there is no perfect bill, HR 5 clearly acknowledges that the footprint of the federal government in K-12 education must be reduced. While NSBA opposed the Cantor’s amendment a Title I portability amendment, we believe that this provision—as well as other NSBA concerns—will be addressed when the Senate passes its ESEA bill, and both the House and Senate ESEA bills go to conference. The alternative is to shut down the legislative process and maintain the status quo—which is not acceptable to NSBA.”

This story appears courtesy Education Week. Reproduction is not permitted.

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[…] Supporters of H.R. 5, the Student Success Act, say it will return educational control to states and school districts. The change represents “a complete U-turn, policy-wise, from the existing federal school accountability law,” says Alyson Klein of Education Week. […]

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