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Despite Hiccups, House Nearing the Finish Line In NCLB Rewrite Debate

The House adjourned late last evening before it was able to finalize consideration of a laundry list of amendments filed to a Republican-backed rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Working late into the night, lawmakers adopted more than a dozen of the 44 amendments filed to the federal K-12 overhaul, including a measure that would allow school districts to use locally designed tests in lieu of state tests.

Despite pushback from within the GOP after the Club For Growth and Heritage Action, two powerful conservative organizations, blasted out emails urging Republicans to block the bill, education commitee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn. appeared to maintain control.

There were rumors, however, behind the scenes, that House leaders don't have enough support to get the bill over the finish line tomorrow. The final vote on the measure could be very close. 

The chamber will reconvene again Friday morning to consider three additional amendments, including one that would wholesale replace the measure with a Democratic version, before holding a final vote on the entire bill.

As expected, the topic of testing stole the show.

Members adopted by voice vote the local testing amendment, which was offered by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

"Having this choice can only benefit our nations schools as they seek to provide quality education a transparent manner," said Goodlatte, adding that he worked with the Chairman of the Senate education committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and his staff to craft the language. Alexander's own draft bill to rewrite the NCLB law also includes a local testing option, and state chiefs have pushed for local testing pilot projects. 

Goodlatte said he expects local tests would only be used "in limited circumstances" and emphasized that providing school districts this option would not decrease transparency.

Democrats pushed back hard on that notion during the debate, arguing that allowing districts to come up with their own, home-baked assessments could cause confusion and make it difficult to measure one district's students against another's.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House education committee, called assessments " a crucial tool for monitoring and ensuring protection of civil right," and said that local tests "would not allow for the [accurate] comparisons" of student achievement within a state.

Indeed, allowing local tests, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., added, "effectively encourages a dummying down of standards and disguises a persistence of learning gaps."

In one of the strangest alliance we've seen in a while, both the conservative Heritage Foundation and the 3.1 million member National Education Association backed Goodlatte's amendment, which is perhaps why despite objecting to the proposal during debate, Scott did not ask for a recorded vote.

The other high-profile testing amendment, which was also adopted via voice vote, belonged to Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore. The provision would allow states to use federal funds to audit the number and quality of tests they use, and eliminate any deemed repetitive or of low-quality.

"Too much time is lost prepping for assessments," Bonamici said. "This amendment will help reduce the testing burden ... and recognizes that a one-size-fits-all policy to address testing won't work."

Education policy watchers were also looking forward to watching debate on the merits of Title I portability, a provision in the bill that would allow Title I dollars for low-income students to follow students to the public school of their choice, including charter schools.

However, the committee that creates the rules for how bills are debated did not advance an amendment from Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., that would have allowed Title I money to also flow to private schools, or an amendment from Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., that would have eliminated the Title I portability language entirely.

The committee did allow discussion of an amendment from Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, that would have required states to demonstrate that the level of state and local funding for education remains constant from year to year.

The ensuing debate struck at the heart of the philosophical differences in how Republicans and Democrats approach the federal role in education. While Democrats demand more accountability of federal funds to ensure they're being used to help the most disadvantaged students, Republicans prefer to entrust states to make the best financial decisions for themselves.

"It simply goes back to the status quo of current law that ties the hands of state officials in budgeting," said Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind. "We need to stop thinking we know what's best for states and that includes telling them how much to spend on education. Just because you spend more money on something doesn't mean you get a better result."

Fudge eventually withdrew her amendments, saying that even if it were adopted it wouldn't make the Republican bill any more palatable.

Republicans also shutdown an amendment from Polis that would have authorized federal funding for early childhood education scholarships. The measure will officially get a vote tomorrow, but it's safe to say the GOP majority will prevail in defeating it. (For amendments that weren't adopted by voice vote, Republicans pushed most of the recorded votes to tomorrow.)

"We already spend more than $13 billion on pre-K programs, including Head Start," said Kline. "I think we should concentrate on getting those right instead of creating another program to compete with federal resources."

Indeed, Kline objected to several amendments offered by Democrats for this very reason.

"Again, the thrust of this legislation is to look at the programs we already have, make the most of them, and give the maximum amount of flexibility to local school boards to put [federal dollars] where they need them," Kline said.

So what about amendments that passed muster with Republicans? The House voted to add amendments to the bill that would:

  • Improve college and career counseling for homeless youth
  • Reaffirm students', teachers', and schools administrators' right to exercise religion
  • Improve accountability and ensures proper oversight of taxpayer funds
  • Clarify the definition of 'school leader' such that it explicitly refers to a school principal
  • Ensure that Indian children do not attend school in buildings that are dilapidated or deteriorating
  • Allow funds to be used for programs and activities that are designed to enhance school safety
  • Allow funds to be used for the creation and distribution of open access textbooks and open educational resources
  • Encourage collaboration and sharing of best practices between charter schools and local education agencies

Check back with Politics K-12 for more on how the debate plays out on Friday, and be sure to follow along on Twitter @PoliticsK12, where we're furiously tweeting the twists and turns of the process using the hashtag "#FixNCLB."

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