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Selling the NCLB Act Rewrite to Conservatives

Now that a new version of the No Child Left Behind Act looks headed to the House floor next week, the bill's sponsors, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., are in full-on member-education mode, meeting with rank-and-file Republicans who may not be familiar with the key pieces of the bill—and may have campaigned on dismantling the U.S. Department of Education, which the bill wouldn't do. (Want to see what kind of material they are distributing? You can find all the messaging right here.)

A big question going forward is on how the measure will handle school choice. More on that below.

In meetings on the bill, lawmakers have been curious about how it handles the Common Core State Standards, which some folks call "Obamacore", thanks to the administration's (too enthusiastic?) support. The measure would prohibit the Education Department from doing anything to "influence, incentivize, or coerce a state" into adopting the common core—or any other "academic standards common to a significant number of states."

Potential selling points for conservatives include language that would give school districts more flexibility when it comes to using federal funds; language that would crack down significantly on the number of programs in the Education Department; and provisions that would give states much broader leeway to design their own accountability systems. Conservatives may also be drawn to language that would seek to limit the number of employees working at the department, through program consolidation and elimination.

It will be interesting to see if those pieces are enough to get the (arguably very) conservative bill through a conservative caucus. The Heritage Foundation, an important touchstone for some Republicans, recently bemoaned the 520-page length of the legislation, and some GOP members have put forth competing proposals. Much more here.

Still, Kline told me a few weeks he was "not worried" about passage, and it seems that the bill's supporters are still confident.

Now the big question is whether Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House majority leader, is going to offer an amendment that would put vouchers in the bill. (A greater emphasis on school choice is something the Heritage folks said would make the bill more palatable to conservatives.)

School choice is something that Cantor—who doesn't have a long record on K-12—has spoken very passionately about lately. There has been wide speculation that he would introduce an amendment during floor consideration of the NCLB Act rewrite that would create a new federal voucher program. That could hinder support for the bill among advocates for school districts (the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association have each endorsed the legislation) and state education agencies (who seem fairly neutral on the measure).

At the moment, advocates say, Cantor has shelved the idea of vouchers and is much more likely to put forth an amendment that would create a Title I portability program, which would essentially allow Title I dollars to follow students to the public school of their choice. This is pretty similar to a provision that U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate education committee, tried to get included in that panel's ESEA bill. Switching to public school portability might still be a tough sell with some district advocates, however, who see it as a step towards vouchers.

A spokesman for Cantor could not confirm the information.
And Alexandra Sollberger, a spokeswoman for Kline, said that, "The committee continues to work with the Majority Leader's office to craft an amendment to the Student Success Act that will achieve Mr. Cantor's objective of enhancing school choice and portability."

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