The U.S. House on Friday passed a bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), labeled "No Child Left Behind" in 2001, the first passage of major K-12 legislation by the House in more than a decade.
The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), passed 221-207, with no Democratic votes. Twelve Republicans also voted against the bill.
It faces an uncertain future. The Senate counterpart, advanced by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and passed out of committee, includes significant differences from the House bill, primarily by maintaining more federal education oversight. President Obama has pledged to veto reauthorization if it resembles the House version.
But a Senate GOP aide tells Governing that the House's passage of a reauthorization bill could change the calculus in the Senate. "I think the center of gravity has shifted," the aide says, though all involved concede that a final deal on reauthorization remains unlikely this year. A Senate Democratic aide says that the Harkin bill is expected to reach the Senate floor in the fall.
If the Harkin bill were to pass the Senate, the GOP aide predicts a bill from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), which was rejected in committee, would serve alongside the House bill as a starting point for conference negotiations, moreso than the Harkin bill itself. That's because the Harkin proposals are unlikely to attract any GOP votes in the Senate, much less the House, so there would likely be a push to bring the conference legislation more in line with the Alexander and Kline bills if there is any chance of securing passage in both chambers.
But that would also make the conference bill less palatable to Senate Democrats, which explains the general consensus that no reauthorization bill will ultimately pass.
In a statement provided to Governing, Harkin said that the House bill "falls short" of his own goals for reauthorization, but he did leave open the possibility that the bills could be merged in conference.
"While I am encouraged that there is movement in the House of Representatives to reauthorize ESEA and look forward to completing work on a full reauthorization," he said, "there are significant differences between (the House bill) and our reauthorization efforts in the Senate that will need to be reconciled.”
The House bill eliminates the Adequate Yearly Progress system, the much-reviled piece of No Child Left Behind that required all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, replacing it with state-set standards that allow states more flexibility in determining which schools are not performing well enough and require intervention. It also locks in the education funding cuts under sequestration.
The legislation also contains two particularly controversial provisions added in the last two days while it was being debated on the chamber floor. One removes a policy, supported by Kline, requiring school districts to use student test scores in teacher evaluations. The other, advocated by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, allows parents to take federal education money and use it to send their children to other public schools, including charter schools.
Teachers unions, who have opposed the bill since it was introduced, restated their opposition Friday.
“While (the bill) contains some positive provisions, as a whole it erodes the historical federal role in public education," Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement, "to be an enforcer of equity of opportunities, tools and resources so that we can level the playing field."
Other education groups like the National School Boards Association (NSBA), which supported the Kline bill, hope that the House's action would encourage movement in the Senate and an eventual compromise in conference.
"We're hoping that the Senate gets the message that it's up to them to do something," Mike Resnick, a top NSBA lobbyist, tells Governing. "To continue the status quo in the federal role in education, from our perspective, is just simply unacceptable."
No Child Left Behind has been due for reauthorization since 2007, and the Obama administration initiatied a waiver program in 2011 from the law's requirements, such as adequate yearly progress. So far, 39 states and the District of Columbia have received waivers.