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Senate Committee Passes Democratic NCLB Renewal Bill

On a completely predictable party-line vote, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill to reauthorize the long-stalled renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The legislation—which on key questions like accountability is similar to the administration's ESEA waiver plan—gives folks a glimpse into where Democrats want to go on ESEA. But there's virtually no chance the bill will actually become law by the end of the year. Everything you ever wanted to know about the bill and how it compares to other measures is here.

The markup, which started yesterday, had an amicable, but decidedly partisan tone, with amendment after amendment passing or failing largely on party lines.

But afterwards, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the committee, said that, while Democrats and Republicans may have huge policy differences on policy, they're more or less on the same page when it comes to process. Both Harkin and the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, want to see the bill advance to the floor this year. And they think lawmakers should be able to vote on any changes that are relevant.

"I think what we've seen is: There are differences on both sides," Harkin said. "That's what makes for a vibrant democracy."

Alexander gave pretty much the same assessment. "We have profound differences," he said. "In our view the bill that we just passed freezes into place a national school board."

This is the second time in two years that the Senate Education Committee has approved a bill to renew the NCLB law. The last version, back in the fall of 2011, never made it to the floor of the Senate, despite the support of three committee Republicans—including Alexander. But civil rights and business groups opposed it, in part because it didn't require states to set goals for student achievement. This bill takes a different tact—it would require performance targets similar to the ones outlined in the ESEA waivers, which are in place in thirty-seven states.

Advocates noted that there was a lot less energy in the hearing room compared to two years ago and very few committee members stuck around for debate. At one point, Harkin actually yelled at Senate staffers to get their bosses back to the markup after a lunch break because there weren't enough lawmakers present to take any votes on amendments. (Maybe senators skipped out because they don't think this bill is really going anywhere?) Harkin did give a perfect attendance award to a new member of the panel, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is quickly becoming a hero to a lot of liberals.

So how did the bill change during the two-day markup? A round up of first day action is here.

Today, the committee accepted an amendment—introduced by Connecticut's Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, that would allow federal disaster aid to go to schools where there's been a shooting. (For example, Sandy Hook Elementary in his own state.) Lawmakers also agreed to an amendment by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., that would encourage schools to offer agriculture education. (So congrats on that, 4-H.) And they added language introduced by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., that would require schools to take extended-learning time into account when crafting improvement plans—something that's already happening under the Obama administration's system of waivers from the NCLB law.

But a series of GOP amendments were defeated. One, by Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, would have made it clear the Secretary of Education can't offer conditional waivers. (That would basically undermine the administration's entire waiver scheme, which calls for states to embrace certain education redesign priorities in exchange for federal flexibility.) To underscore their point about the intrusiveness of the department's approach, Roberts and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., brought along big huge binders of regulations related to the waiver scheme.

Another Roberts amendment, which would get rid of the administration's signature Race to the Top competition, also went down on a partisan vote. But, interestingly, Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., a senior Democrat on the committee, told Roberts he shares his frustration with the president's favorite education program, which both lawmakers argued has mostly ignored rural states. Sanders voted "no at this time" on the provision.

Democrats also beat back a Scott amendment that would have allowed Title I funding to follow kids to a private school. An amendment by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that would have made changes to the Title II formula, which allocates funds to states for teacher quality, was also defeated, but drew some Democratic support.

What are some issues to watch down the road? Warren introduced, and then withdrew, an amendment that would have made it clear that the accountability provisions that apply to regular public schools apply to charters too. That's something that could come up if the bill ever makes it to the floor of the Senate (more on that below). And Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, R-Alaska, introduced, and then pulled back, an amendment that would have included some performance goals in Title I (but largely leave accountability up to states.)

Maybe the most spirited debate of the markup was on an amendment offered by Alexander that would have stripped "comparability" provisions from the bill and replaced them with language allowing Title I dollars for disadvantaged kids to follow students to any public school their parents choose. More on comparability here.

Alexander said that the comparability language would put a big federal restriction on district budgets. But Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo, an author of the provision, actually pounded the table in passionate support, saying without the comparability language the committee might as well just rename Title I the "increase the achievement gap title." Ultimately, Democrats rejected Alexander's amendment.

Even some Democratic amendments didn't make it into the bill, including one by Bennet that would have created an Office of Rural Education in the U.S. Department of Education. Alexander countered that if the amendment passed, the Council of the Great City Schools would want an urban office, and then some folks would ask for one for small cities, and so on. The amendment failed, with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., crossing over to vote with Republicans to defeat it. More here.

What happens now? Given Harkin's and Alexander's statements, the legislation actually has an outside chance of advancing to the floor of the Senate—which would be a big deal. The Senate hasn't considered an ESEA bill, since, well No Child Left Behind in 2001, which took almost two months to debate.

Plus, the House is slated to consider its very different ESEA bill on the floor this summer. House action could add to the pressure on the Senate. But it's very hard to imagine that the two bills could be reconciled into something that President Barack Obama would actually sign by the end of the year. (So hope you like those waivers, states!)

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