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Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) took another step forward Tuesday, as two bills passed the House Education and Workforce Committee along party lines, but the political viability of the legislation outside the GOP-dominated House remains in question.
Both bills, the Student Success Act and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act, were sponsored by Chairman Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) and passed with a 23-16 vote. The Student Success Act would overhaul several policies outlined in No Child Left Behind (NCLB): most importantly, it would end the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) system, which required schools to make strides annually in student achievement across various subgroups or risk being labeled as failing. The AYP system also included the requirement that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. States would instead be asked to develop their own accountability metrics.
The Student Success Act, formally HR 3989, would repeal the federal requirement that states administer annual assessments in science, leaving the option to individual states. It would eliminate the School Improvement Grant program, which allows states and school districts to tap federal funding in exchange for committing to specific turnaround models to improve struggling schools, but increase to 10 percent the set-aside for Title I money that goes toward school improvement. The act would also merge the funding streams for migrant education, neglected and delinquent, English language acquisition and Indian education programs into the main Title I pool, meaning states and school districts could use the money for any Title I-related activities. That provision drew criticism from Democratic members, who asserted that it would draw resources away from those student populations.
Finally, the Student Success Act would repeal the federal requirement that teachers be highly qualified; the remaining teacher-related provisions were outlined in the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act (formally HR 3990). That bill would loosen the conditions for federal funding that supports the development of teacher evaluation systems, in contrast to the specific policies outlined by the Obama administration in the Race To The Top program. It would consolidate most teacher quality grant programs into a single block grant. Ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) argued that there would be no accountability for federal dollars under the Republican proposal. A new Local Academic Flexible Grant program would be established to fund innovative initiatives designed by states and school districts.
One amendment was attached to the Student Success Act. Proposed by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), it would reduce the number of the U.S. Department of Education employees in proportion to the reductions in federal grant programs and other repeals of federal authority outlined in the underlying bills. Rokita also proposed an amendment that would allow states to opt out of federal education programs and retain tax dollars that would have gone toward those programs in the form of tax credits. The proposal was met with strong opposition from Democratic members of the committee, and Rokita withdrew it. However, he pledged to reintroduce the amendment on the House floor.
An amendment from Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) to overhaul part of the funding formula for Title I, which he said leads to too few federal dollars going to rural school districts, was turned down. Several Republican members from urban areas voiced concerns that their school districts would lose money under the proposal.
Taken together, the bills would replace a “failing federal system,” Kline said in his opening remarks. They would “shrink federal intrusion into education and return responsibility for student achievement to states and school districts.”
The federal education law, retooled as NCLB in 2002, has been overdue for reauthorization since 2007. The Obama administration has initiated a waiver program from some of NCLB’s requirements for states that commit to a variety of reforms. The Democratic substitutes for Kline’s bills, offered by Miller, were modeled after the waiver program, but were rejected by the Republican-majority committee.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) has passed its own reauthorization legislation. The House and Senate bills include some similarities, most notably the elimination of the AYP system, but also some stark differences. And it seems unlikely that the president would sign legislation greatly reducing the size of the Education Department, as proposed in the Rokita amendment. Despite urging for reauthorization from a variety of stakeholders, it remains to be seen whether the two chambers will be able to agree upon a new law during a politically-charged election year.
During the bills’ mark-up Tuesday, Democratic members of the committee accused the Republicans of passing legislation that had little chance of advancing past the House. “It’s not going anywhere,” Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) said. “So we’ve just wasted another year.”