The House approved legislation on Friday that would dramatically limit the federal government's power to set education standards across the country, reversing the policy put in place a decade ago under President George W. Bush.
Members voted 221-207 to pass the Student Success Act, H.R. 5, which reverses many provisions of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law signed by Bush in 2002. Every Democrat voted against it, as did 12 Republicans.
In the short term, the legislation could do nothing more than lay down a GOP marker on education. The Democratic Senate is expected to ignore the House bill and work on its own ideas, and the White House said this week that President Obama would veto the bill.
Much of this new thinking is a response to the Obama administration, which has given dozens of states waivers from the current law's performance requirements. Republicans say these temporary waivers are giving the administration leverage over states to pursue their own policy prescriptions.
"We've been in a situation for years now in which the Congress of the United States — House and Senate — has abdicated completely to this administration its responsibility for establishing public policy," House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said during Thursday's debate on the bill.
"This administration has been issuing conditional, temporary waivers to suit its idea of what education policy ought to be, not what the legislative body and not what the people we represent say it ought to be."
Republicans argued more broadly that it's time to trust state and local education officials, which they said are in a better position than the federal government to make education decisions for students.
"We wrote this legislation because we believe that parents and teachers care for our children more than career bureaucrats at the Department of Education. We trust parents," said Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.). "We trust ourselves."
In place of the administration's waivers, the bill would remove much of the federal government's authority to set standards for schools and teachers, and shift this power back to the states. It would also give states more flexibility to spend federal education money.
It's these changes that prompted the White House to call the bill a "step backwards."
"Among other things, the bill would not support State efforts to hold students to standards that will prepare them for college and careers; would not support our international economic competitiveness; would virtually eliminate accountability for the growth and achievement of historically underserved populations," the White House said Wednesday.
Many House Democrats said NCLB's accountability standards need to be reformed, but agreed with the White House that the Republican bill goes too far by dismantling some of the basic federal protections for students. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) and others said it would repeal NCLB language that ensures states spend a minimal amount of money to educate students with special needs.
"This Republican bill abandons the federal government's historic commitment to educating disadvantaged populations," Hinojosa said. "H.R. 5 block grants vital programs targeted for English language learners; migrant children; neglected and delinquent youth; and Indian education; and allows States and districts to siphon away these federal funds and use them for other purposes."
Committee ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) questioned why Republicans want to abandon programs that the current Speaker helped push through a decade earlier.
"We all recognize that a good education is a great equalizer, no matter where you come from, and it is necessary for a strong economy and a vibrant democracy," Miller said. "That's why now-Speaker John Boehner and I worked with then-Senator Ted Kennedy and President George W. Bush in crafting the No Child Left Behind Act more than a decade ago.
"We agreed that there was a soft bigotry of low expectations in our education system. We agreed that schools were hiding low achievement by some students by using the averages of performance in the schools, and it was wrong."
During amendment consideration, the House approved several Republican amendments aimed at further limiting the federal government's control over education, and giving states more options for measuring schools' performance.
On Friday, the House also accepted an amendment from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that would allow federal funds to follow students to other public schools or even charter schools. The House accepted that language in a voice vote.