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House Democrats Hold Their Own Session on Rewriting the NCLB Law

Democrats on the House education committee held a hearing-like panel on Thursday to protest the way in which Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., is pushing forward with an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Nearly a dozen of the Democrats' 16 members attended the event, during which they heard from a variety of education stakeholders about how best to rewrite the federal K-12 law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But more importantly, they got to air their disappointment with what they see as a legislative process that is outright excluding them.

"Regrettably, the majority has chosen to approach this task before us without affording the whole committee [the chance] to hear from experts," said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the ranking member of the committee. "It's important to note that No Child Left Behind, like the six reauthorizations that came before it, was achieved in a bipartisan process."

Kline introduced a bill Tuesday that's largely based on the measure he ushered through the U.S. House of Representatives on a party-line vote in 2013. He's scheduled a committee markup for the measure on Feb. 11, and the GOP leadership has blocked off floor time to debate the bill the week of Feb. 24.

The chairman's decision to forgo hearings on the issue, combined with the swift timeline he's laid out, has irked committee Democrats.

"It's absolutely counter to our charge [to rewrite the law] ... that we would mark up the nation's most important education bill without hearing from a single education stakeholder," Scott said. "This extraordinary timeline is a disservice to the 50 years of ESEA bipartisan history."

Democrats, of course, are in the minority, and it's the prerogative of Republicans to legislate as they see fit. In this case, Kline is pulling from the committee's very recent work to rewrite the law.

"Over the last four years, the committee has held more than a dozen hearings that examined the challenges facing K-12 classrooms," Kline said in a statement upon introducing the bill.

During the Thursday quasi-hearing, which included two panels of witnesses and lasted for more than three hours, most of the members voiced concerns that Kline's bill would turn back the clock on the country's most disadvantaged students.

"It is really very clear that [the bill] shows that poor students, disabled students, and minority students are not the priority of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle," said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio.

Those criticisms largely stem from provisions surrounding Title I, the federal grant program for low-income students.

For example, under the current law, schools have to target their Title I dollars to at-risk students and are prohibited from operating programs for the whole school, unless at least 40 percent of the students are in poverty. But under Kline's bill, any school that gets Title I money could use it to run a program that benefits all children.

Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., was specifically concerned about the Title I portability language in the bill, which would allow federal Title I dollars to follow students to the public school of their choice.

And others criticized the elimination of maintenance of effort, which calls for states and districts to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal funds.

(You can read more about the specifics of the bill here.)

The committee members will likely offer various amendments during the markup next week to attempt to strip out some of those provisions—though, as was the case in 2013, they aren't likely to succeed.

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