House, Senate at Odds on NCLB Rewrite

Published June 19, 2013

Although Democrats and Republicans largely agree the largest federal education law is in shambles, House Republicans and Senate Democrats have different ideas about how to revise No Child Left Behind.

“It’s a matter of the conservative philosophy of localities and states being closest to the child and being empowered to best direct education dollars and decision-making, versus a big-government philosophy that says this decision should increasingly be made by bureaucrats in Washington, [and] another federal program and another billion dollars will finally do the trick,” said Lindsey Burke, an education fellow at the DC-based Heritage Foundation.

The Student Success Act (SSA), introduced by Rep. John Kline (R-MN) and Todd Rokita (R-IN), chairmen of House education committees, aims to “restore local control, support more effective teachers, reduce the federal footprint, and empower parents,” says a committee press release.

The bill passed the House in July. President Obama has threatened a veto.

In the Senate, Democrats’ Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA) has already been marked up and awaits a vote.

No Child Left Behind, which passed in 2001 and has been overdue for an update since 2007, is the most expensive and far-reaching federal education law in history. It required states to test students in reading and math each year and have all scoring “proficient” by 2014. The Obama administration has given 37 states a pass on meeting NCLB mandates in exchange for adopting administration-favored policies.

House Republicans
At about 550 pages long, SSA responds to specific federal encroachments—Common Core and Race to the Top—said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. It eliminates some of the worst of NCLB, but not all of it.

“There is some mention about ‘We think NCLB was too prescriptive’ and ‘States should do their own standards and accountability,'” he said, “but it continues to suggest that the federal government has some responsibility to make sure the states are monitoring outcomes.”

Burke said the bill is only a short step in the right direction.

“They are to some extent trying to eliminate the most onerous provisions of NCLB, but I think there is a long way to go from there to eliminating federal intervention,” she said.

“The federal government has shown no ability to positively affect academic achievement, and there’s nothing in this bill that would change that,” McCluskey said.

The bill eliminates NCLB’s proficiency mandate, and another that requires high teacher credentials. It also restricts the U.S. Secretary of Education’s influence over state standards and tests. McCluskey said he was “pleasantly surprised with the strength of the wording” of that provision.

Conservatives shouldn’t try to fix NCLB, Burke said.

“It’s a bureaucratic, heavy-handed, 600-page federal law. Fixing it doesn’t limit federal intervention in education,” she said. “The goal of conservative policymakers should be to allow states to opt out.”

Senate Democrats
Burke called SASA “a 1,150-page blueprint for big-government education.” It requires districts to pay teachers the same in poor schools as richer counterparts, would keep the federal government heavily involved in efforts to alter a state’s lowest-performing schools, and require states to tie teacher pay to student test scores. The Republican bills do none of these.

“They’re viewing Washington as the appropriate change agent in education, when really it has to be the local school districts and parents,” Burke said.

The bill includes an anti-bullying measure and instructions for handling student pregnancy.

“That’s the philosophy: We’re the federal government, we know best, and we’re in charge,” McCluskey said.

Getting Something Passed
Passing a sensible bill is difficult, McCluskey said, because throwing federal tax money at pet programs signals to voters that congressmen care.

A bill that required some testing in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, without being any more prescriptive, could get Democrat support, he said.

“The question is, how willing would Democrats be to not have all sorts of other [provisions]?” he asked. “I think you could get broad agreements on how prescriptive federal policy is, but I don’t know if that broad agreement would be enough.”


Image by Cliff1066.