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House Panel Gives Partisan Approval to ESEA Bills

UPDATED

On a partisan vote, the House Education and the Workforce Committee today gave its stamp of approval to GOP-backed legislation reauthorizing portions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

A pair of bills, both of which were introduced by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the committee, would scale back the federal role in education and give states much more running room when it comes to K-12 policy, a 180-degree pivot from the current version of the law, the decade-old No Child Left Behind Act. The measures passed on a party-line vote of 23-16.

Debate around the measures at today's committee markup was predictably partisan.
Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the committee, said the legislation "turn[s] its back on the civil rights promises of this nation: that every child deserves a fair shot at success, no matter what their background."

Not surprisingly, Kline sees it differently. He said the legislation "untie[s] the hands of state and local leaders who are clamoring for the opportunity to change the status quo and revive innovation in our classrooms."

Also on a party-line vote, the committee accepted an amendment from Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., which would seek to reduce the number of staff employees at the U.S. Department of Education.

But another amendment that rural school advocates have been pushing for ages went down to defeat. The provision, introduced by Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., would have totally revamped the Title I funding formula, which distributes money for disadvantaged students.

Right now, the formula favors high-population areas (like Montgomery Country, Md., one of the richest counties in the country) over smaller, rural schools (like those in Thompson's western Pennsylvania district). The change would have been phased in over four years. Background here.

Thompson argued that such a change would be just pure fairness. But Miller argued that the provision wouldn't be fair to the school districts that would lose out under the deal, since there wouldn't be any extra Title I money to offset their loss. The amendment failed on a vote of 22-16, despite Kline's support.

Funding-formula fights, which are more likely to divide on geographical lines than on partisan ones, can throw a monkey wrench into ESEA renewal, slowing down a bill for a long time. But given the partisan division in Congress, lawmakers probably have plenty of time to sort out the funding formula issue.

Democrats introduced two amendments, which would have replaced the accountability bill with their own version, authored by Miller. It would have required states to set their own achievement targets and expanded accountability for English-language learners and students in special education, among other provisions. Not surprisingly, the amendment was defeated, on a party-line vote.

Miller also put forth an amendment that would have essentially replaced Kline's teacher bill with his own ideas. The measure had language requiring districts and states to craft teacher evaluation systems. It also would have authorized funding for programs such as American History and the arts. That also went down on a party-line vote.

Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ohio, introduced and then withdrew an amendment that would have made teacher evaluation an option, not a mandate. For those keeping score, Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., was with her on this.

The big question going forward is: What happens next?

Maybe floor action, although some advocates are skeptical. Kline said in an interview after the markup that he's already spoken to Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House leader, about getting the bill on the floor.

"We've gotta keep the process moving forward," he said.

The Senate education committee has already approved its own bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But the measure's sponsor, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has said he's not going to move that legislation to the floor until the U.S. House of Representatives passes a bipartisan ESEA renewal bill. (He didn't say, though, just how much Democratic support would count as "bipartisan".) In fact, Harkin put out a statement right after the vote saying that he's sorry it was a GOP-only affair.

"There's no doubt that achieving bipartisan consensus on a critical and complex issue like education reform is difficult," Harkin said. "But it is not impossible - we've been able to achieve it for decades on education, and even in this partisan environment we achieved it just last fall in the [Senate education] Committee."

The two top Republicans on the Senate education committee, Sens. Michael B. Enzi, of Wyoming, and Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, were in favor of the Senate bill. But most GOP lawmakers on the panel voted no.

And if today's markup is any indication, getting any Democrats to go along with the House bills could be a very tall order.

Plus, there are GOP lawmakers on the committee who seem to want to go much farther. Rokita introduced, then withdrew, an amendment that basically would allow states to opt out federal funding for education and give the money back to taxpayers

And, in an interview, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said that, if he had his way, the Education Department would be reduced to just one staff person who would distribute best-practices information to states. K-12 policy just isn't a federal issue, he said.

Background on the bills: The committee is actually considering two separate pieces of legislation, one aimed at accountability, and the other at teacher quality. The accountability bill, called the Student Success Act, would dismantle adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the controversial, signature yardstick at the heart of the NCLB law, and allow states to craft their own accountability systems. It would no longer require states to test students in science. And it would scrap the School Improvement Grant program, which offers resources to states to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

The teacher bill would require states and districts to craft teacher evaluation systems. And it would get rid of many targeted federal programs, such as the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which covers after-school activities, in favor of block grants to states and districts.

For a breakdown on the differences between these bills, the version approved by the Senate education committee, and provisions of the Obama administration's waivers under the NCLB law , check out the handy chart with this story.

The markup is taking place the very same day that nearly 30 states are set to apply for wiggle room under the administration's waiver plan. For now, that seems to be where the action is, not with Congress, where lawmakers can't seem to get much done on any issue, not just on education.

Who supports the legislation? The American Association of School Administrators and the National School Board Association have both officially endorsed the bills. AASA love letter here, NSBA fan mail here.

Who is opposed? The tri-caucus, a group of powerful House lawmakers representing districts with lots of black, Hispanic, and Asian students, who say the bills are a big step back on accountability, particularly for subgroups of students, such as racial minorities and English-learners.

Thirty-eight business and civil rights groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Council of La Raza, and the Education Trust, share those concerns. Disability rights groups including the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the Council for Exceptional Children are also in the "against" team. Teachers' unions don't have much love for the bill either.

Who is not fully on board or fully against? A number of groups fall into this camp of folks who want to see reauthorization happen and like some aspects of the bills, but have concerns about others. The Council of Chief State School Officers is on the list.

So is the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Its members like provisions such as the legislation's move to scrap AYP, but are upset about others, such as the lack of a comprehensive literacy program.

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