Parties battle over federal mandates in overhaul of No Child Left Behind law

Dueling bills are being introduced in the Senate to revise the decade-old and much maligned No Child Left Behind education law.

After failing to agree on single bill, Republicans and Democrats are introducing rival plans to reform the way the federal government works with states and local school systems.

"We were trying last year — we tried this year — to see if we could come up with a compromise bill, a bill that enough Republicans and Democrats could agree on, that we could move on together from the beginning," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

"But in the end we just couldn't do it because there's just a big difference of opinion between the Democratic senators and the Republican senators about the federal role in local schools."

ADVERTISEMENT
Efforts to update No Child Left Behind failed in the last Congress, and the law has gone unauthorized for the last six years.

Alexander conceded that the failure to reach a compromise did not bode well for passage of legislation but said he hoped that the Republican-majority House would approve a bill that he found favorable.

"In the end, both bills can go to conference, and maybe we can get a compromise at the end rather than at the beginning," he said.

On Thursday, Alexander and five other Senate Republicans introduced their No Child Left Behind bill, which they said would curb the "national school board" that is being created by growing federal mandates.

The Every Child Ready for College or Career Act would give more freedom to states and local school systems, though it retains requirements on testing for students in grades three through eight and in high school. The bill hands power to states to come up with those tests and measurements, however, and to identify which schools are succeeding and which need assistance.

Under Alexander's bill, the Education secretary will be barred from prescribing standards for states and local school districts.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate HELP panel, and the rest of the Democrats on the committee introduced their own bill to update the education law on Tuesday, called the Strengthening America's Schools Act.  

That bill aims to increase attention on early education, promote teacher evaluations and require states that do not already have an Education Department-approved standards system to develop one. The systems will need to take into account student achievement and growth, English proficiency for language learners and graduation rates.

Like Alexander's bill, it also retains the testing requirements for many students.  

The bill "will build on the current state-led reforms that support teachers and schools as they prepare America’s children with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in college and careers," Harkin said in a statement.

Both bills claim to replace the "one-size-fits-all" approach of No Child Left Behind and grant states more flexibility, though the Democrats' bill outlines a more central role for the federal government and the secretary of Education.

Harkin's bill is more than 1,100 pages, while Alexander's is 211, a difference the Republican considered indicative of the differing approach to the federal role in education. 

In the House, Reps. John Kline (R-Minn.) and Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), the chairmen of the Education and Workforce Committee and its Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee, also introduced a revision of No Child Left Behind on Thursday.

In a statement, Rokita said his bill, the Student Success Act, "ensures state and local education leaders will have every opportunity to do what’s right for our children, and prevents excessive federal intrusion in our classrooms."

No Child Left Behind is the most recent version of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which gives federal money to schools. Congress has failed to revise the law since it expired in 2007.

The law was passed in 2001 as a major component of President George W. Bush's first term but has since been criticized for imposing rigid accountability targets on local schools.

Since last year, the Obama administration has begun waiving the law's requirements for 37 states and the District of Columbia that have developed their own education standards. Republicans, though, argue that that waiver imposes an equally unpalatable set of federal mandates.

The Senate HELP committee will mark up the competing bills on Tuesday.

— This story was updated at 2:16 p.m.