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House Education Committee Approves NCLB Rewrite on Party-Line Vote

The Republican-controlled House education committee approved an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act Wednesday afternoon on a party-line vote.

The measure, which would significantly curtail the footprint of the federal government in K-12 schools, will be considered by the full House the week of Feb. 24.

Among many other things, the bill would allow Title I money for low-income students to follow them to the public school of their choice, including charter schools; block-grant and make transferable funding for teacher preparation/development (Title II) and after-school programs (Title IV); and consolidate or eliminate more than 65 federal education programs. (You can read more about the bill here.)

The day-long markup process did not alter the bill significantly, but it did preview at least one policy debate that's sure to cause fireworks when the bill hits the chamber floor: allowing Title I funding to be used at private schools.

A Democratic substitute of the Republican NCLB rewrite, which would restore separate streams of funding for several programs, was defeated handily on a party-line vote. (You can read more about that bill here.)

In general, Democrats got no love during the markup as none of their amendments were adopted. As a rule, if an amendment created a new program or cost additional money, Republicans defeated it specifically on those grounds.

Indeed, an explanation oft-repeated by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the committee chairman: The Republican NCLB rewrite, the Student Success Act, would block-grant several education programs to give states the flexibility to use funding as they see fit.

Some notable Democratic amendments that didn't make the grade included a proposal that would have included early-childhood education in the law, one that would have encouraged states to adopt dropout programs, and another that would have enshrined the Obama administration's Investing in Innovation competitive-grant programs in law.

Title I Portability

As it stands, the Republican-backed bill would significantly alter the way in which Title I dollars can be used under the law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In addition to including Title I portability, the measure would eliminate maintenance of effort, which requires school districts and states to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal dollars. It also would strip a comparability clause, a change that would allow any school that gets Title I money to use it run a program that benefits all children. (Under current NCLB law, schools can't operate programs for the whole school, unless at least 40 percent of the students are in poverty.)

But an amendment from Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., would have further altered Title I portability and allowed it to be used to pay for private schools, something Democrats and a hefty number of education advocates vehemently oppose.

"In America, if you can afford that choice then you already have it," said Messer. "The only real question is what are you going to do for those who don't have that choice?"

Democrats blasted the proposal, arguing that it would take money away from the public school system, stifle accountability, and is a slippery slope to a private voucher system. Several Democrats noted that in states that have similar systems in place, often the funding goes to students that are already enrolled in private schools instead of helping those in failing schools find new schools.

Allowing Title I dollars to flow to private schools is controversial even for Republicans—which is why Messer withdrew the amendment in the end. It's widely believed that including such language in the bill would jeopardize its chances of passage.

In fact, the last time an NCLB rewrite bill hit the floor of the House, then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., wanted to offer an amendment that would allow Title I dollars to go to private schools. But because it was feared that the provision would sink the bill if adopted, Cantor never offered it after making a gentlemen's agreement with Kline.

This scenario is sure to play out again during debate on the House floor, and will also be an important policy issue to watch as the Senate moves forward with its NCLB rewrite. (Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., is likely to push for it.)

One additional Title I tidbit: When GOP members unveiled the NCLB overhaul Wednesday morning that they later cleared, it included several technical changes to the measure they originally introduced. Notably, it increased the weight given to the percentage of low-income students in a school district, which is part of how Title I aid is distributed. It's sort of a big deal, and you can read more about that here.

Glimpses of Bipartisanship

A pair of amendments received bipartisan backing during the markup.

An amendment offered by Rep. Carlos Curbela, R-Fla., would allow states to delay using test scores of English-language learners in accountability systems for two years for math and three years for reading and English/language arts.

"Either we want to give these teachers and schools that are teaching these children the opportunity and support they need to teach them, or we want to punish them for not making proficiency in a year's time," said Curbela.

Both Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said they wish they had more time to work with Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., on the Curbela proposal because they agree with the underlying goal that students and teachers shouldn't be punished for low test results of students who are still learning how to speak English.

With the exception of Wilson, Democrats voted against the amendment out of fear that the broadly written proposal would allow some states to misuse the provision and not track English-language learners at all. Notably, the National Council of La Raza opposed the amendment.

The amendment ended up passing 22-15.

In addition, a proposal offered by Heck that would require states to report on the achievement of children of military families was roundly approved via voice vote. Similar language was also included in the Democratic substitute.

No Love for Reducing Tests

That the committee adopted zero amendments offered by Democrats wasn't entirely unsurprising, though many education politics watchers were anxious to see how one particular proposal would play out.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., as we've previously reported, offered an amendment that would allow states to audit the number and quality of tests given to students annually and, if warranted, eliminate those that are repetitive or of low-quality.

"Too much time is lost for preparing for standardized assessments, and the high-stakes nature of those tests inject anxiety into our classrooms," said Bonamici. 

Her amendment was based on a bill she introduced that has bipartisan backing and was thought of as a relatively benign way to address the testing issues, one of the biggest policy debates spiraling out of NCLB overhaul efforts in both chambers.

"I struggle to understand how this can be opposed," said Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif.

But Kline did just that. While he agreed with the premise of the amendment, he noted that it would authorize additional funding and create a new program, two things he opposes. He also said that by block-granting a majority of the funding in the bill, states would be free to audit tests on their own.

Bonamici withdrew her amendment before it received a vote in hopes that tweaking language would make it more appealing to more Republicans and thus garner enough votes during floor debate.

Amendments Offered and Recorded Votes

Here's a list of all the amendments offered to the bill and their results (in the order in which they were offered):

  • Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas: Would restore English-language proficiency targets and increase authorization level for Title II from $750 million to $1 billion. WITHDRAWN
  • Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla.: Would strengthen student and teacher data-privacy provisions. PASSED: VOICE VOTE
  • Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif.: Would restore Title II for teacher preparation and professional development, including restoring the "highly qualified teacher" definition. FAILED 16-21
  • Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.: Would require states to report on the achievement of military students. PASSED: VOICE VOTE
  • Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn.: Would supercharge STEM education programs and focus efforts on low-income and minority students. FAILED 16-21
  • Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind.: Would allow Title I dollars to be used at private schools. WITHDRAWN
  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.: Would require that states and districts address the equitable distribution of teachers. FAILED 16-21
  • Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va.: Would require the Institute of Education Sciences to draft an annual report documenting the cost savings from the reduced federal role in this bill. PASSED 21-16
  • Rep. Martha Fudge, D-Ohio: Would eliminate Title I portability; restore maintenance of effort; and restore Title I comparability language. FAILED 16-21
  • Rep. Carlos Curbela, R-Fla.: Would allow states to delay using test scores of English-language learners in accountability systems for two years for math and three years for reading and English/language arts. PASSED: 22-15
  • Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.: Would strengthen accountability by requiring states to adopt college- or career-ready standards and set performance, growth, and graduation-rate targets. FAILED: VOICE VOTE
  • Rep. Tim Walburg, R-Mich.: Would overhaul state licensure requirements. WITHDRAWN
  • Rep. Gregorio Sablan, D-Northern Mariana Islands: Would authorize the Investing in Innovation grant competition. FAILED: VOICE VOTE
  • Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis.: Would further block-grant education programs in Title III, which includes parent engagement and the state flexibility fund. WITHDRAWN
  • Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla.: Would encourage states to establish dropout prevention programs and would establish a grant for schools with dropout rates above the state average. FAILED 16-21
  • Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore.: Would allow states to audit the number of tests given to students each year, and use current funds to eliminate duplicative or low-quality tests. WITHDRAWN
  • Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.: Would create a comprehensive literacy program. FAILED: VOICE VOTE
  • Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif.: Would set high standards for charter school authorization. FAILED 15-22
  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.: Would require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards; use student growth in accountability systems; and eliminate redundant and low-quality tests. FAILED 16-21
  • Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C.: Would create a competitive grant to provide students with a well-rounded education by funding programs on social studies, language, and writing. FAILED 16-21
  • Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif.: Would restore the Title IV funding stream for wraparound services. FAILED 16-21
  • Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.: Would establish federal protections against bullying or harassment of real or perceived sexual preference. RULED NOT GERMANE
  • Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio: Would increase appropriations for K-12 programs under the NCLB law and also for preschool education programs. FAILED 16-21
  • Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.: Would replace the Republican NCLB rewrite with a Democratic version. FAILED 16-21
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