Senate Moves on NCLB Reauthorization

Published October 25, 2011

The U.S. Senate is considering an 860-page bill and 868-page amendment by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. The proposal passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Oct. 19, with a hearing set for November 8. 

During the committee mark-up, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) complained committee members had been given only 48 hours to digest the amendment before committee chairman Harkin required their votes. Paul noted the HELP Committee had not held a single NCLB hearing in 2011. He invoked a rare procedural tactic to request further consideration before the bill passed out of committee. 

“[Senators] have not had enough time to allow teachers, superintendents, and principals in our states who specialize in educating our children to review this legislation,” Paul said.

The bill eliminates adequate yearly progress (AYP), the federal provision requiring all students to rate “proficient” in reading and math by 2014. It replaces AYP with a requirement for states to adopt “college and career-ready” standards in math and English. That closely fits the Obama administration’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing NCLB, calling for states to identify and turn around their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and 5 percent with the largest achievement gaps.

The Senate has not moved to examine or vote on other NCLB-reauthorizing bills, including one from four Republican senators and those passed by the House. NCLB was scheduled for reauthorization in 2007, and in the meantime the Obama administration has been waiving the law for states that adopt policies the administration favors. At least 39 states have said they will apply for waivers. 

Better Than Nothing?
“[Harkin-Enzi] is a significant and healthy retreat from the overreaching of NCLB,” said Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s far from an optimal bill, with far too many prescriptions on issues like teacher qualifications and school improvement strategies, but it’s a decided improvement over the status quo.”

Neal McCluskey, associate director of Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, says the proposal doesn’t reduce the federal education footprint. 

“It does seem like [the bill] would significantly decrease the rigid prescriptiveness of NCLB, but it doesn’t fundamentally reshape the federal role,” he said. “NCLB did that, for the first time having Washington dictate educational structures and endpoints. This bill, as best you can tell trying to quickly read the behemoth and follow the amendments, would just pull some of that back.” 

Common Core Concerns
Although NCLB represented the federal government’s first foray into dictating states’ testing frequency (every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school), the Harkin proposal is the first to wade into curriculum, with its “college and career-ready” standards requirement.

“The language is vague enough, and enforcement authority lacking enough, that this strikes me more as a rhetorical device than anything else,” Hess said. McCluskey, by contrast, calls the requirement “extremely dangerous.”

“The Harkin-Enzi bill would dictate one outcome and give only two ways to meet it, [which] moves us closer to a federal curriculum,” McCluskey said. “But let’s be fair—that movement started with NCLB requiring ‘proficiency’ for all kids.”

NCLB Proposals Proliferate
The Harkin/Enzi proposal follows a slate of five ESEA bills introduced in mid-September by four Republican senators, which would reform particular aspects of NCLB. They include changes to Title I federal funds for poor students and clarifying Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s waiver authority. 

The two Senate bills contrast proposals introduced by House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA). Kline introduced a proposal to provide states with increased flexibility in how they spend federal education money. Hunter introduced a bill to eliminate and consolidate 43 of 80 NCLB programs.

“There is no indication that either the full Senate or House is in a rush to take up NCLB,” McCluskey noted.

Uncertain Future
The Harkin/Enzi proposal will likely reach the Senate floor before Thanksgiving, but the widely differing Senate and House proposals create an uncertain future for any near-term NCLB reauthorization. 

“I think the House is likely to move at its own pace,” Hess said. “Freshman Republicans didn’t go to Washington to pass a big federal education law. A sufficient portion of the Republican caucus would have to be convinced that this law dramatically curtails the federal role. I’m not sure this bill will ultimately go far enough, and I’m not sure any bill that did go far enough would pass muster with the Obama administration.”   

There remains wide disagreement over how to amend the law, with civil rights groups complaining the Harkin proposal reduces federal requirements for schools and some Republican groups joining the National Education Association in opposing federal requirements that teacher evaluations include student test scores and letting states propose their own turnaround strategies for their worst schools. 

“A better alternative to NCLB is to drastically reduce the federal government’s role in education, return authority and decision-making power to state and local governments, and expand programs that have consistently demonstrated positive results: charter schools, voucher programs, and tax credits,” said Michael Wille, an education policy analyst at the Illinois Policy Institute. “Parental choice in education can change the lives of our students and put them on the path to a brighter future filled with opportunities.”