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Win for Franken, Loss for Waivers at Kick-Off of ESEA Markup

Before U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., threw a monkey wrench into the proceedings, the Senate education committee finally kicked off debate on a bill to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

The bill has some bipartisan support, but that doesn't mean this markup, whenever it gets going again, is going to be a love fest.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., started off today's session at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee by saying that he's been frustrated with the process behind the scenes. He didn't get the 800-plus page bill until a few days before the markup. And he's not sure if he'll get to make changes on the Senate floor.

Just one amendment has passed so far. It was introduced by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. It would make a change to the bill's comparability language, which was largely based on a bill introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. In a nutshell, comparability requires school districts to take teachers' salaries into account when calculating how much Title I money each school gets.

The amendment would prohibit school districts from forcing teachers to transfer in order to meet the comparability requirement. The amendment was accepted, despite objections from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former U.S. Secretary of Education, who worried it would shortchange poor students.

Another amendment, from Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., would make it easier for students in special education to be given alternative assessments and held to alternative standards, based on their Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. Harkin said the amendment was well-intentioned, but could mean that students with disabilities wouldn't be challenged by their schools. There was some lively debate on the provision, but no vote because the markup came to a screeching halt when Sen. Paul used a rare procedural move to put things on hold.

So far, besides procedure, the biggest loser is the Education Secretary Arne Duncan's plan to offer states waivers from some provisions of the current No Child Left Behind Act. Lawmakers have said they'd like to get this bill passed in the Senate before Christmas to negate the need for waivers.

During committee debate, Sen. Harkin, D-Iowa, the committee chairman and cosponsor of the bill, said it would eliminate the need for waivers, since all states would have the same expectations.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., was more forceful. In fact, he cited the waiver process as a key reason the committee needed to get going on the bill. GOP lawmakers should "keep in mind that if they are concerned about an unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy becoming a kind of national school board, they should support the legislation rather than allow the secretary's waivers to dictate the strings that come with state and local flexibility," Enzi said.

Also causing a stir was the Washington Post editorial, which chided the GOP for, in essence, joining forces with the teachers' unions in a push to scale back teacher-evaluation provisions in the bill's original draft.

But Alexander, who helped negotiate the change to the evaluation language, laughed off the idea that he was on friendly terms with the National Education Association, which opposed the original language. His objections were based on a small-government philosophy, he said. He thinks that teacher and principal evaluations are best developed at the local level, not in Washington.

As far as the NEA goes, "I had a year-and-a-half brawl with them," as governor of Tennessee over a merit-pay program, he said.

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