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House Passes Partisan NCLB Rewrite, But Rocky Road Still Ahead

Members of the House of Representatives leave the Capitol on Friday for the weekend after the Republican majority passed the Student Success Act, legislation designed by the GOP to replace the No Child Left Behind law.

UPDATED

After two days of partisan debate on an issue that used to bring Democrats and Republicans together in a kumbaya chorus, the House of Representatives passed a GOP-only reauthorization of the long-stalled No Child Left Behind Act.

The bill, approved 221-207, with no Democratic support, would maintain the NCLB law's signature testing schedule and its practice of breaking out student-achievement data by particular groups of students (such as English-language learners and students in special education).

But otherwise it's almost a complete U-turn, policy-wise, from the existing federal school accountability law. States and school districts would get a lot more say on how they hold schools accountable for the progress of all students, including special populations. That has advocates for some school districts (including the American Association of School Administrators) pretty happy. But civil rights organizations, the business community, and urban districts are not on board. More on what's in the bill and who likes and hates the bill here.

What happens next is anyone's guess. The Democratic-controlled Senate education committee approved its own completely partisan and very different version earlier this year. The bill's author, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is hoping to move that legislation to the floor of the Senate this year but it hasn't yet been scheduled. (Harkin's latest comments on the bill here.) It's unclear if the Obama administration, which has its own waiver plan, even wants a reauthorization. And the president has threatened to veto the House GOP legislation.

Yesterday, a key vote illustrated the perils in passing a partisan bill. The measure won support from some of the most conservative members of the House GOP caucus only after Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the bill's author, gave up the ghost on a policy near and dear to his heart: Requiring school districts to use student outcomes to measure teacher effectiveness. Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and Steve Scalise, R-La., persuaded Kline to make such evaluations optional, not mandatory. And those conservative lawmakers were in lock-step with the National Education Association on this issue.

The teacher-evaluation change brings the House bill much closer in line with legislation introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, to rewrite the ESEA law. Alexander supports the idea of teacher evaluation tied to student outcomes, but doesn't think it's the federal government's job to mandate it.

And in fact, Alexander released a statement calling the bill a "kissing cousin" of his own legislation, which has the support of all ten GOP lawmakers on the Senate education committee. Alexander encouraged his colleagues to pass legislation similar to the House bill, which he said would halt the administration's efforts to create "a national school board."

"Senate Republicans are thrilled," a Senate GOP aide said. "The House bill is about as good a piece of legislation as there is and we should go to conference and concede to the House...[The vote] shows that when you offer freedom, freedom wins."

Ultimately, 12 Republicans in the House crossed party lines to vote against the provision. The detractors included some northeastern GOP lawmakers, such as Reps. Michael Grimm and Tom Reed, both of New York, who had worked with the NEA on amendments. And in a somewhat unusual move, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the speaker of the House, and a key architect of NCLB, voted to support the bill. (Typically, the speaker abstains from voting on most legislation.)

Perhaps the high-point today—the final day of debate—came during an exchange between Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, on an amendment introduced by Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the majority leader. The amendment would allow parents to take Title I dollars to any public school of their choice, including a charter.

Cantor argued this Title I portability amendment would make a huge difference for children who are caught in failing schools. But Miller argued that NCLB already allows those students to transfer to the school of their choice—and the vast majority don't bother to take districts up on that flexibility.

"It's a decision that doesn't work for them because of lack of transportation in poor neighborhoods," Miller argued. He noted that Cantor had originally wanted to allow studentes to transfer to private schools as well and called the policy an "imitation voucher."

The Cantor amendment was ultimately passed on a voice vote. The AASA and the National School Boards Association, two traditional education groups that support the bill but not the Cantor amendment, are continuing to endorse the legislation, even though Title I portability is now part of the deal. Essentially, the organizations are holding their noses and hoping that the school-choice language gets scrapped in conference. (If there ever is a conference. Which is a very big if. More on all that here.)

Here's NSBA's official response to the Title I portability addition:

"NSBA will support [the bill] in view of the overwhelming shift in direction to ensure that greater flexibility and governance will be restored to local school boards. While there is no perfect bill, HR 5 clearly acknowledges that the footprint of the federal government in K-12 education must be reduced. While NSBA opposed the Cantor's amendment a Title I portability amendment, we believe that this provision—as well as other NSBA concerns—will be addressed when the Senate passes its ESEA bill, and both the House and Senate ESEA bills go to conference. The alternative is to shut down the legislative process and maintain the status quo—which is not acceptable to NSBA."

The House also voted down a substitute amendment, written by Miller, which would have essentially replaced the entire bill with the Democrats' vision for reauthorization. Miller wanted to require states to establish accountability systems that set performance, growth, and graduation targets. 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.

In a made-for-C-SPAN-highlights-reel-moment: Miller got very fiery when the House presiding officer tried to cut off debate on his amendment. "Who's running out of time? Children are running out of time in this nation!" he shouted, as the gavel came down.

[UPDATE (5:30 p.m.) On Friday afternoon, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted his feelings about the so-called "Student Success Act." ]

Photo: Members of the House of Representatives leave the Capitol on Friday for the weekend after the Republican majority passed the Student Success Act, legislation designed by the GOP to replace the No Child Left Behind law. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

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