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Senate Education Committee Considers NCLB Bill

Everyone knows that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is ultimately headed absolutely nowhere this year, thanks to partisan divisions.

Still, the Senate education committee marked up its version of the bill today. The debate over the legislation says a lot about how Democrats and Republicans approach the federal role in K-12 policy in the (sorta)post No Child Left Behind era. (Want to compare the Democratic and Republican visions in chart form? You can do it right here.)

What's next for ESEA? The markup of a very different House version is on June 19, and that bill is slated to go the floor by the end of July. And Sen. Tom Harkin's bill could be headed for the floor too. Harkin, D-Iowa, said he's spoken to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about timing and amendment rules—he wants folks to be able to offer any amendment that's relevant. Alexander has also said he would like to advance the bill under those conditions.

Harkin would love to see floor action in July, but knows the schedule is crowded. But the bill will definitely be on the floor by the end of the year, he told me.

So far, the Harkin bill is getting a lot of love from civil rights groups, but it hasn't garnered an endorsement from the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, or the Council of the Great City Schools—a fact that Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., cited during the markup to underscore the idea that the bill doesn't have a lot of ardent supporters among practitioners.

What are the big differences between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to the legislation? Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., kicked off the markup by giving folks a list. It included: performance goals for students (which weren't in the bipartisan bill back in 2011), turnarounds, comparability, whether Congress should keep or ditch the highly qualified teacher regulation, and choice. (Not on the list, but still an Alexander theme? Bill length. Harkin's bill is nearly 1,1100 pages while Alexander's is a little over 200.) Alexander introduced his own ESEA bill as a substitute—it went down on a pretty predictable partisan vote, 12 to 10.

Alexander said Harkin's bill relies on the supposition that "a handful of well-meaning people [in Washington] can envision school circumstances better than a really good school superintendent, a really good governor, or a really good legislator." Under the Harkin bill, he added, "the standards have to be approved by the secretary. The tests have to be approved by the secretary. ... These are all decisions that a local state or school board makes."

Harkin's big counterargument: The things in the bill are generally already happening, in 37 states plus the District of Columbia, through the administration's NCLB waivers. "What this bill does is it just really recognizes the reality that exists out there [and] tries to make the federal government a partner, a partner," he said.

And he added, "This is not the heavy hand of the federal government telling you this is exactly what you have to do. We're saying ... let's work together to make sure we have access and equity for our kids."

The committee was slated to consider 40 amendments.

One, by Harkin, would have made it clear that if states don't want to implement the accountability measures in the bill they aren't obligated to take Title I money—an obvious political counter to the arguments that Alexander and Company are making. That was accepted.

And here's a recap of the other action so far:

•Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, who could be chairman of the committee in 2015, put forth an amendment that would call for schools to track the children of military personnel as a separate subgroup. It passed, on a vote of 13 to 9, with Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois voting with the Democrats.

•Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the former chairman who worked with Harkin on a bipartisan bill back in 2011, introduced an amendment that would scale back the federal role in the bill on school improvement and accountability. The amendment was defeated.

•The bill has been described by advocates as a "Christmas tree", since it creates many new competitive programs important to Democratic lawmakers, on everything from literacy to early childhood education. Burr introduced an amendment that would have stripped all these new programs out of the bill. That sparked a debate on competitive vs. formula grants, a big theme in federal policy. The amendment failed, 13 to 9.

•Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., introduced an amendment that would have made big changes to special education testing. The amendment would also have made it clear that states can change their standards without the permission of the secretary of education—an emerging issue, since many states made participation in the common-core standards a piece of their waiver plans. During debate, the committee essentially ignored the special education testing part of the provision and focused on the standards piece. Harkin called the amendment "a direct attack on Common Core"—and Scott happily agreed. The amendment failed on a party-line vote.

Preview of amendments to come here.

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