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House GOP Introduces Bill to Rewrite NCLB; Would Keep Tests in Place

UPDATED

Most of the talk about rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act has been centered on the U.S. Senate. But today, the House education committee rereleased a bill to update the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

And if you're familiar with the Student Success Act, which passed the House back in 2013 on a totally party-line vote, then this one should seem like old hat.

It's worth noting the House bill is pretty similar—except when it comes to testing—to the draft bill from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to rewrite the NCLB law. In fact, when the House passed the legislation back in 2013, Alexander, now chairman of the Senate education committee, called it a "kissing cousin" to his own 2013 legislation.

The committee is planning to mark-up the bill next week and move it to the floor of the House during the last week in February. 

"Over the last four years, the committee has held more than a dozen hearings that examined the challenges facing K-12 classrooms," Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the panel, said. "Americans have waited long enough for reforms that will fix a broken education system." 

But Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House education committee, says the bill doesn't do enough to maintain a robust accountability system, particularly for poor and minority kids.

"There is broad agreement that No Child Left Behind is outdated," he said in a statement. "But rather than building upon the advancements we've made since the last ESEA rewrite, the Republican [bill] would turn back the clock on our public education system." Scott is holding his own forum on an NCLB update, slated for Thursday, February 5. 

So what are the major points in the House bill? Quick cheat sheet below:

On testing: The bill would keep the NCLB law's testing schedule in place, requiring states to assess students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school in reading and math. And, just like under current law, science assessments would be required in three different grade spans. Unlike under Alexander's bill, there's no first and second option here for discussion. This isn't a surprise, since both Kline, and Rep. John Boehner, the speaker of the House, want to keep the testing schedule in place.

On standards: Unlike the Senate draft bill, the House legislation actually includes the words "common core"—and not in a particularly flattering context. The bill specifically prohibits the U.S. Secretary of Education from requiring states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, or any other set of standards, and bars the secretary from putting "additional burdens" on states through the regulatory process when it comes to standards, or from making any state partner with another state on standards.

Instead, states have to come up with their own challenging academic standards in language arts, math, and science. There's nothing in the bill that would prohibit states from sticking with the common core if they want to. But the secretary definitely couldn't make them use the common core.

On accountability: The bill would get rid of "adequate yearly progress," the current law's yardstick, and pretty much let states do what they want on accountability. State accountability systems would have to disaggregate achievement data to show how subgroup students are doing compared to the student population as a whole. States would still have to issue school report cards. That's pretty much it.

On school improvement: As under the Alexander legislation, the bill would get rid of the School Improvement Grant program, which offers formula grants to states to fix up low-performing schools. Instead, states would set aside 7 percent of their own Title I money for school improvement. (That's a slight difference with Alexander's draft, which calls for a set-aside of up to 8 percent.) States would have to intervene in Title I schools that aren't performing well, but the bill doesn't tell them how to do so or how many schools to try to fix at a time. That's pretty different from the waivers the Obama administration has granted from portions of the law, which ask states to single out 15 percent of their schools for special attention. But it's pretty much in line with Alexander's legislation.

On choice and tutoring: Districts wouldn't have to use these NCLB-era interventions anymore for schools that miss achievement targets, if they didn't want to. But, under the bill, states would have to set aside 3 percent of their Title I funds for a competitive-grant program that would allow districts to offer school choice or free tutoring.

On teachers: States can use federal teacher-quality funding to set up teacher evaluations if they want, but it's not a requirement. Kline had originally pushed to include a requirement for teacher evaluation tied to test scores in his bill, but he threw in the towel on that to win support for final passage when it became clear that House conservatives—and some moderates close to the teachers' unions—were not going to go for a teacher-evaluation mandate. The bill gets rid of the NCLB law's "highly qualified" teacher requirements and consolidates other teacher quality programs.

On those wonky (but important) funding provisions: The bill would merge programs aimed at migrant students, English-language learners, and neglected and delinquent children with the much larger Title I program for disadvantaged students. Districts could use the funds for any activity authorized under those programs. No money could be transferred out of Title I schools, but funds could go to other low-income schools. Like Alexander's draft legislation, the House bill also would repeal 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. But it would keep the "supplement-not-supplant" rule, which essentially says that federal funds can't replace state and local dollars. Education organizations are not going to be thrilled with the plan to get rid of maintenance of effort.

As under Alexander's draft, there would be another important change to the rules governing Title I money. Right now, schools have to target their Title I dollars to at-risk kids. They can't operate programs for the whole school, unless at least 40 percent of the kids are in poverty. But under the draft, any school that gets Title I money could use it run a program that benefits all children. That's either a great new flexibility or a big civil rights rollback, depending on who you talk to. 

On Title I portability: Just as in Alexander's bill, states would be allowed to use Title I funds in public school choice programs, by allowing Title I dollars to "follow the child." This is not likely to make education organizations—which might otherwise embrace a smaller federal footprint—very happy. But it's unclear just how much of a dealbreaker it is. Advocates for districts, including AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and the National School Boards Association continued to support the bill back in 2013, even after the portability provision was included, in the hopes that it would come out in a conference committee. (We don't know yet if that will be the case this time around, however, since the groups haven't yet taken a position on the new version of the bill.)

Programs consolidated: The bill would get rid of or consolidate nearly 70 programs, some of which (like the Even Start Family Literacy program) haven't seen a dime of federal funding in years. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't include authorizations for the Obama administration's favorite competitive-grant programs, Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation.

Another funding twist: States and districts would have to preserve a portion of this consolidated federal funding to partner with organizations that operate outside of the traditional school system, including "private sector initiatives." Not a lot of detail on just what that means yet. 

Education Department smackdown: The bill would call for the education secretary to take a look at the number of full-time equivalent personnel associated with the consolidated programs and reduce the department's workforce by that amount. Which might mean a big exodus at 400 Maryland Ave. 

What's the early reaction? Education organizations, including NSBA and AASA, supported the bill back in 2013. But civil rights and business groups hated it, and it's likely they won't be any happier with this latest, virtually identical version, even though it maintains annual tests. "The bill would thrust us back to an earlier time when states could choose to ignore the needs of children of color, low-income students, [English learners], and students with disabilities," the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote in a letter to Kline.  

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had a somewhat similar take. "I am concerned that this proposal would turn back the clock ... because it doesn't invest in preschool, or support schools and districts in creating innovative new solutions to problems that translate into better outcomes for students," he said in a statement. (No surprise that the Obama administration doesn't like this bill, since it threatened to veto the 2013 version.)

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