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How a Conservative Blogger Helped Derail the House NCLB Rewrite

Efforts to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act hit the skids in the House of Representatives last week, and a couple of "grassroots" education bloggers may have had a hand in stalling—or maybe even outright stopping—the legislation.

So how did that happen? After all, the bill had the support of GOP leadership, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the education committee, and some very conservative folks in Congress. Plus, the House had passed a nearly identical version, just two years ago, with only GOP support. And bonus: The bill was so conservative that tons of House Democrats hated it and the Obama administration even threatened to veto it.

So passing it shoulda been a slam dunk, right? Well, it wasn't.

Conservative dissatisfaction over leaders' handling of funding for the Department of Homeland Security seemed to have played a role. But another part of the reason, according an interview that Kline gave to the Associated Press?

This blog post, written by Christel Swasey, a former high school English teacher from Utah, which quickly went viral, according to the Daily Caller. It seems to have ended up in the inboxes, facebook pages, and twitter feeds of parents, teachers, and education activists, who then called lawmakers, alarmed.

Swasey called the bill a "betrayal" and wrote: "I've never been so shocked and angry over a proposed Congressional bill that I burst into tears. Not until tonight."

Of course, Swasey's post wasn't the only opposition. Both the Heritage Action Fund and the Club for Growth came out swinging against the bill, which was likely even more damaging. Still, the blog post seems to have helped fuel the fire. 

So how does it feel to have a hand in stopping legislation in its tracks, even temporarily? "I was glad that people got the message," Swasey told me in an interview Wednesday. 

"I don't think there's enough trust anymore of our politicians," she added. "Maybe one of the reasons that the blog post went viral is that there were direct quotes" from the legislation itself, as opposed to "just talking points." 

In particular, Swasey said she's worried that the bill would force states to stick with the Common Core State Standards, and trample on the rights of private schools, especially religious schools, and homeschoolers. And since the bill keeps the NCLB law's testing schedule in place, she sees it as passing federal mandates onto states, not getting rid of them entirely. She credits Ann Marie Banfield, a fellow activist, who works with Stop Common Core New Hampshire, with helping her understand the legislation. In fact, she posted Banfield's analysis into her blog. 

To be sure, their take on the bill is very different from my own reading of it, which you can check out here, or the committee's, which you can look at here.

The most important thing to highlight is that, while the bill does require states to set standards, which was also part of the NCLB law, it explicitly prohibits the Secretary of Education from forcing states to adopt any particular set of standards, including the Common Core.

And while it's true that the bill does keep in place some NCLB requirements—like testing students and calling for states to measure student progress—it turns almost all decisions about accountability over to states. That's a big departure from the current law, which gives the feds a big say over school improvement and student achievement goals.

So while the legislation may not be the wholesale rejection of a federal role in education that some would like to see, it's certaintly a huge step back for the feds—so much so that some Democrats are worried about the impact of the changes on the poor and minority kids that NCLB was designed to help. 

The Daily Caller, which is considered a conservative news outlet, also fact-checked Swasey's post in great detail. And the Council for American Private Education also sought to debunk it

What's more, some of the things that Swasey and Banfield flagged in the post, such as having department peer-reviewers take a look at state Title I plans to make sure the federal money is being spent appropriately—aren't new to the House Republican bill, called the Student Success Act. In fact, they've been part of the underlying law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, for many years.

Swasey said she "didn't run the bill through a sieve" to see what had been added and what was part of current law. But she doesn't understand why Congress would keep in place parts of the law, which, in her view, aren't consistent with conservative principles. 

Overall, Swasey said, she feels kinship with Democratic activists who have also disparaged the federal role in accountablity. 

"This issue is really bringing the Democratic and Republican grassroots together," she told me. "I agree with everything I see coming out of the Democrat grassroots anti-high stakes testing camp. The fight has become the grassroots of both parties vs. the elite," who she says are profiting from the current educational system, including initiatives like Common Core.

Long-time Edweek readers might remember Swasey. Also using grassroots tools, she tried to get anti-Common Core language added to the GOP presidential platform in 2012, but was shot down.

She was bummed out at the time, and attributed the demise of her provision to the pro-Common Core views of some of then-GOP nominee Mitt Romney's surrogates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush is now gearing up for his own presidential run.

The House may have an opportunity to try again on the NCLB rewrite. Kline told AP that he's hoping the bill will come back the week of March 16. 

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