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Could Conservative Criticism Create Hurdles for NCLB Renewal?

The Obama administration's Race to the Top would be history, there would be no federal role in school improvement, and the number of education programs would be significantly curtailed under a bill reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act slated for consideration by the House education committee this week.

But for some conservatives that may not go far enough.

They want the federal government out of the accountability business, period. That means no more mandated standardized testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and no breaking out student achievement by subgroup, unless states and local communities think it's the right move.

To that end, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, will re-introduce the "A-plus" Act, likely later this month, along with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. The legislation, which has been around for several sessions of Congress, would allow states to opt-out of the current federal testing and accountability system entirely and submit another plan to the Secretary of Education. Read a summary of the bill from the last Congress here.

The A-Plus Act is largely the brainchild of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which published a blog post today criticizing key pieces of the House education committee bill written by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the panel's chairman. You can check it out here. The Heritage folks are also not huge cheerleaders for legislation introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee. Compare the Kline and Alexander bills with Senate Democrats' vision here. (Important to note: Tea party superhero and former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina heads up Heritage.)

Some folks are wondering whether conservative pushback could mean tough sledding for the Kline bill when the measure moves to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, likely in July. After all, the Workforce Investment Act legislation only narrowly passed the House earlier this year, thanks to Democratic and conservative opposition, and despite the strong support from Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House Majority Leader. Cantor is expected to take a starring role once ESEA moves to the floor.

For his part though, Kline isn't concerned about the bill's odds on the House floor.

"I'm not worried," he told me in an interview. He noted that every GOP lawmaker on his committee supports the bill, which is very similar to one that passed out of committee last year.

And he thinks his measure is actually more conservative than the A-plus approach, because previous versions of the A-plus Act would have required states to send their alternative accountability systems to the Secretary of Education for approval. And on WIA? He notes that the important thing is that the bill did ultimately pass the House.

But others aren't so sure of smooth sailing.

"I don't think there's an appetite out there among conservatives for big comprehensive bills," said Lindsey Burke, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of the blog posts on the Kline and Alexander bills. She noted that Kline's legislation is over 500 pages, while the A-plus Act is just about 13. "There's a level of prescription that shouldn't be there," especially when it comes to language that would call for districts to evaluate teachers based on student outcomes and use the evaluations in making personnel decisions. That's not in the Alexander bill.

It would help, Burke said, if the Kline legislation included a provision that would allow Title I dollars to follow students to the schools of their choice. That something that Cantor may introduce during floor consideration.

Bishop, whose home state was one of the first to challenge the NCLB law, didn't comment on the Kline bill's chances, saying he hasn't reviewed the legislation thoroughly. But he did say Kline had to craft a bill that would pass out of a committee that includes some lawmakers who are "good solid conservatives who still have this idea that education has to be standardized and we have to have control over it."

As a former teacher, Bishop thinks that's the wrong approach.

"If you allow teachers to be creative, as they were trained to be, then by definition you have a good school," he told me in an interview. He thinks states and districts should be free to experiment with the accountability approaches that work best for them, without fearing the loss of federal funding.

Another alternative? Rep. Scott Garrett's LEARN Act, which would also allow states to opt-out of accountability measures—and return tax dollars going to federal education programs to folks in states that go this route. So far, he's garnered 18 co-sponsors.

More on what to watch on ESEA here.

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