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House Education Panel Discusses NCLB Renewal

Will this finally be the year that Congress actually reauthorizes the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been awaiting renewal for more than six years? Most folks aren't expecting that to happen, given how difficult it is to get anything done in Congress these days. But it sounds like lawmakers on the House education committee are going to give it a shot, even though the partisan divisions that doomed the last attempt at a renewal don't seem to be going away anytime soon.

At a hearing today, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, reiterated his criticism of the administration's plan for renewing the NCLB law, a system of waivers, which so far have been offered given to more than 30 states.

"It's time to change the law," he said. "These waivers are a short-term fix for a long-term problem and leave states and districts tied to a failing law." He said that the committee would act on reauthorization "in the coming months."

The committee is aiming to get going on the reauthorization bill and potentially move it to the floor of the House—a step that didn't happen in the last Congress—by the end of the summer, advocates say. A markup could even come as early as next month, and the bill could potentially be on the floor by the end of July. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been meeting with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the Senate education chairman, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate panel, to talk about action over in that chamber.

Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the House education committee, expressed optimism about the potential for reauthorization. "I believe there is a pony in there somewhere, with regard to reauthorization," he said. (Probably a reference to this well-known joke.)

Miller also expressed concerns about the waivers, which he said "stem from states wanting to adopt policies that reach back to a pre-NCLB time, such as proposing to diminish or not have subgroup accountability."

During the hearing, there was broad agreement at the very top level on issues including the need to provide states and districts flexibility to support their work and move away from the more prescriptive nature of the NCLB law. But it remained unclear whether there was a consensus on how Congress should accomplish that goal.

For instance, last year's House bill would have scrapped the School Improvement Grant program and its four controversial turnaround models altogether. It's hard to see the administration, which has been pushing the four SIG models, being too enthusiastic about that idea. And it sounds like Miller feels strongly that the feds should have some role in supporting turnarounds—that wasn't in the House bill.

"The federal government will never actually improve a school nor should it try," Miller said. "However, we must continue to support the simple idea that low-performing schools should be identified and required to improve."

A big question going forward: Will the committee include vouchers in its ESEA rewrite? That's something House Majority Leader Eric Cantor seems to want to have happen, but it could cost GOP lawmakers the support of education organizations that represent local and state leaders who endorsed the committee's previous bill.

Still, John White, Louisiana's school superintendent, who testified at the hearing and whose state recently enacted a voucher program that was just struck down by its state supreme court, seemed to think school choice was a good way to go. White also pushed for a greater role for states in defining accountability measures—something he said could help in a variety of areas, including better alignment between career and technical education and the traditional "college readiness" track. (A side note: There was surprisingly little discussion of the Common Core State Standards, unargurably the biggest thing happening in education policy right now.)

Other tidbits:

•White, whose state has chosen to combine subgroups such as English-language learners and minority students into a single "supersubgroup," told lawmakers that states should get more flexibility to set performance standards. "Out of the best of intentions, we end up confusing schools," Mr. White said. Schools, he explained, don't really think about their kids in terms of subgroups. "We need a simple system from the federal government.

•Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., asked about prekindergarten, a hot topic these days. Eric S.Gordon, the chief executive officer of the Cleveland Metropolitan School district, said pre-K can help prepare students for later success, but it has to be followed up with other supports, such as after-school programming, or its effects will be erased.

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