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House Committee Passes Partisan NCLB Renewal Bill

Another markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education, another totally predictable partisan vote.

Last week, the Senate education committee passed an ESEA bill with just Democratic support. This time, it was the House Education panel's turn to consider a bill to revise the No Child Left Behind Act.

Everyone agrees the law is in desperate need of a makeover, but partisan divisions continue to get in the way. And today's debate on the bill, which was written by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the committee, was no exception.

You can take a look at our summary of the bill here, and the committee's here, and see how it compares to other ESEA bills under consideration here. But, in a nutshell: The bill would keep the No Child Left Behind's testing regime in place (each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school), but leave the actual school improvement decisions completely up to states. It would combine a whole bunch of education programs—including those for migrant children, delinquent students, English-Language learners, and others—into a big giant funding stream, with the aim of maximum flexibility.

And it would call for districts to develop teacher evaluation systems based on student outcomes. Districts would have to use the evaluations in making personnel decisions. The legislation also repeals maintenance of effort, which requires school districts and states to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal dollars.

"The legislation will reduce the federal footprint," said Kline in his opening statement. He noted that the bill has the support of advocates representing school districts: the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association. The bill also has the stamp of approval of a number of organizations representing religious schools‐and Americans For Tax Reform, an organization started by Grover Norquist to crack down on the size of government.

Who are the Most Valuable Players of the markup, from the Democratic perspective? The Education Trust, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the National Council of La Raza, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Right before the markup started, those groups blasted out a statement slamming the Kline bill for watering down accountability. (For instance, the bill would allow alternative assessments for as many students in special education as a school deems appropriate—a big red flag for many in the disability community.)

Democrat after Democrat cited the statement during debate, and Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the committee, flagged the group's concerns in his opening statement.

"This bill is a step in the wrong direction," he said. "Stakeholders from across the education community agree. This includes business and labor, civil rights organizations, disability rights advocates, and nearly every other education group." Business and civil rights leaders expressed similar sentiments about last year's Republican House bill.

Kline's response to those criticisms? "That argument is based on a false—and frankly offensive—premise that the very state and local leaders clamoring for reform just don't care about students," he said.

Another big Democratic beef is with the authorization levels in the bill, which, they argue, lock in place the cuts made to education programs through sequestration (those automatic, across-the-board cuts that kicked in earlier this year). Authorization levels are just the amount of money that a bill suggests programs should get—they're not set in stone and lawmakers frequently ignore them. But they send a message.

"Sequester should not become the permanent policy of our nation," said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., in speaking out against the Republican bill. "What really troubles me [about the bill] is that we just have to resign ourselves to sequester, which is really dangerous. ... We shouldn't be viewing it as an inevitability in the education committee."

There were only four amendments offered. One, by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the top Republican on the subcommittee that oversees K-12 spending, would make technical changes to the measure—plus add in language making it clear that the U.S. Secretary of Education cannot attempt to "influence, incentivize, or coerce a state" into adopting the Common Core State standards initiative—or any other "academic standards common to a significant number of states." Kline's last ESEA bill also prohibited the department from monkeying around with standards, so what's the big difference here? This language actually calls out the common core, by name.

Democratic Vision

The Democrats offered just one amendment—an alternative bill by Miller, which went down to a party-line defeat. Still, it's worth taking a close look at the Miller language—the political landscape can change really fast, putting Miller back in the ESEA driver's seat. And he'll be a key voice if the ESEA ever gets to a conference committee.

The CliffsNotes version of the amendment: Miller wants to require states to establish accountability systems that set performance, growth, and graduation targets. States would be able to use multiple measures (not just test scores) to track student outcomes. When it comes to school improvement, the bill calls for low-performing schools to consider family engagement, teacher and leader effectiveness, and curriculum, among other factors.

And on teacher evaluation, the Miller measure would call for districts to craft evaluation systems and use them in professional development and to ensure the equitable distribution of teachers. The Miller substitute got a thumbs-up from The Education Trust, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the Leaders Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Next Steps

Another amendment, by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., would make dual enrollment an allowable use of funds under the big flexible spending program (or block grant, depending on your perspective) created under the bill. Everyone seemed to like that idea—it passed with virtually no debate and no dissension.

The sleeper issue to watch going forward: the Title I funding formula. This issue is hugely important to Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., who has written legislation—the All Children are Equal Act, which would include a fix to the formula to help high-poverty rural districts. Thompson's amendment would strike the two pieces of the formula that he considers to be broken. Thompson offered and withdrew his amendment, but there's a very good chance he'll try to get a vote on the ACE Act on the floor. Groups as diverse as the American Association of School Administrators and the Center for American Progress have expressed support for a change to the formula, but that doesn't mean fixing it will be easy—there's no extra money to help smooth the transition.

Miller made that point during debate, even though he added that he sympathizes with Thompson. "It's a little bit difficult in this budget situation to see how you make this transition without harming poor children," Miller said.

Next stop, the floor. Kline has said the bill is likely to advance to the floor of the House in July. The issue to watch there will be school choice. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the majority leader, is likely to be a big cheerleader for ESEA on the floor, and rumor has it he'll introduce an amendment adding a new school choice provision.

Right now, two organizations representing school districts (the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association) have endorsed the bill, but they may well jump off if vouchers are added to it. More on potential floor hiccups here. Kline said earlier this week he expects the bill to pass. But Miller doesn't expect Democrats to help get it through—he expects leaders will be whipping strongly against it.

"There's nothing compelling about this bill in terms of the future and the excellence of American education," Miller said.

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