Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on Tuesday unveiled a long-awaited draft rewrite of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. The bill marks a significant departure in that it would not penalize schools that don’t reach set benchmarks by 2014. The proposal focuses federal attention on the lowest-performing schools and those with large achievement gaps.
“It is a shift where we are moving into a partnership mode with states rather than one where the federal government says, ‘You’ve got to do this and this and this,’ ” Harkin said, echoing the chief complaint from Republicans about the current law.
If all goes as planned, the bill will pass Harkin’s committee with Republican support next week, a noteworthy accomplishment in an increasingly divided Congress. Still, it is likely that at least half of committee Republicans will vote no because the measure’s level of federal control is greater than they would like. Other Republicans could vote yea just to keep the reauthorization effort alive, but they are certain to demand changes down the road.
Education law has always been bipartisan. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., wrote the original standards-based legislation. But complex, comprehensive measures such as Harkin’s proposal struggle under any circumstances. Everyone involved in Tuesday’s rollout was careful to call it only a first step.
Committee ranking member Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., has worked closely with Harkin. Although Enzi and other Republicans aren’t weighing in publicly until next week, Enzi’s influence on the draft is clear. For example, the bill doesn’t have federally mandated performance targets for schools—something Harkin wanted—and limits federal intervention to each state’s bottom five percent of schools in performance and top five percent in achievement gaps.
The emphasis on just the lowest performing schools won’t please education-reform advocate groups such as Education Trust, which worry that only so-so performing schools will get a pass. They have criticized the Education Department for emphasizing the worst schools and not the ones in the middle.
Harkin’s bill is less aggressive on teacher evaluations than the administration would like. The bill would require schools to develop teacher-evaluation systems based on multiple measures, including classroom observation and student achievement. Unlike the Education Department’s criteria for state waivers, Harkin’s proposal does not require schools to use the teacher evaluations in making personnel decisions.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the bill is a positive step toward reauthorization. “A bipartisan bill will not have everything that everyone wants, but it must build on our common interests: high standards; flexibility for states, school districts, and schools; and a more focused federal role that promotes equity, accountability, and reform,” he said.
The bill walks a thin line between Democrats who want to be more aggressive on education policy and Republicans who think current law is overly intrusive. It is unclear whether it will please anyone, but it will take some pressure off of lawmakers who have been harassed for years by school districts to fix the more egregious elements of No Child Left Behind. At least now everyone has a concrete proposal to discuss.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has already lined up amendments to bolster the provisions on early education and homeless students and to strengthen the data to make sure at-risk students aren’t being ignored. Murray also cheered Harkin’s bill for its provisions emphasizing literacy and requiring career and college standards—items for which she has personally advocated.
House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller, D-Calif., who helped write No Child Left Behind, praised Harkin's effort. "Bipartisanship is the only way to rewrite NCLB. The rest is politics," he said.
To date, only one of the House education proposals—dealing with charter schools—had bipartisan support.