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Winners and losers in the Senate’s fix to No Child Left Behind

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by Jason Russell
Washington Examiner
July 16, 2015

The federal government’s role in education is one step closer to getting its first major overhaul in 13 years.

The Senate passed a bill Thursday that would reform No Child Left Behind, a law that is widely viewed as broken. No Child Left Behind was originally meant to be reformed in 2007, so if a reform is signed into law it will have come at least eight years late. Bipartisan majorities supported the bill, with 81 votes in favor and 17 votes against. Notable votes against included Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker.

The Senate bill would give states more power over what to do with failing schools, although some state-designed plan to identify and reform failing schools is required. The amount of federally-required testing in schools would fall, and the remaining tests won’t be tied to any federal consequences. The bill also prohibits the Department of Education from encouraging states to adopt specific academic standards, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been doing with Common Core using waivers from No Child Left Behind.

The House recently passed a similar education reform bill, so the next step is for the two bill to go to a conference committee for reconciliation.

Few of the interest groups involved think the Senate bill is ideal. For the most part, groups on the edges of the political spectrum are upset with it, while moderates on both sides are pleased with the progress. Here are the winners and losers from passage of the Senate’s fix to No Child Left Behind:

Winners:

Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray

Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Ranking Member Patty Murray, D-Wash., guided the bill to unanimous approval in committee and its eventual passage on the Senate floor. The bipartisan support for the final bill shows that Democrats and Republican are still capable of compromising even when not faced with a crucial deadline. Education pundits will praise Alexander and Murray for their efforts, especially if they can find a way to get a final version signed by President Obama.

Teachers Unions

Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers support the Senate’s reforms.

In a Thursday morning email to senators, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia urged the Senate to approve the education bill. “While not perfect and with room for improvement still remaining before a bill reaches the President’s desk, [the bill] marks a significant improvement over current law in numerous ways,” Eskelsen Garcia wrote. “[The bill] moves decision-making to the people who know the names of the students they educate, incentivizes supports and interventions tailored to local needs, and preserves the historic federal role in protecting the most vulnerable. … The Senate is on the cusp of an historic opportunity to begin fulfilling America’s promise of equal educational opportunity for all.”

In June, AFT President Randi Weingarten said, “The Senate bill … is a much-needed reset in federal education policy and creates the oxygen that schools need to actually teach children, not teach to tests.” The AFT has voiced its opinion on certain amendments while still pushing for passage of the overall bill.

Moderate Conservatives

Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, called for education reformers on both sides of the aisle to recognize the Senate bill as progress. “It’s time for all of us to act like grownups and help get a recognizable version of the Alexander-Murray bill across the finish line,” Petrilli wrote on July 7. He added that conservatives should support the bill because it gives plenty of education authority back to the states, while liberals should support the requirements that states and districts have to do something about failing schools.

At the American Enterprise Institute, education scholar Rick Hess wrote on July 6 the that Senate bill “would constitute a huge improvement over the status quo and the profoundly troubled prescriptions of NCLB and the depredations of Secretary Duncan’s waiverocracy.” Hess said the bill had room for improvement, but called it a “giant step forward.”

School Choice Advocates

School choice advocates failed to get any kind of extra support for school choice programs in the bill, but were able to avoid damage and were generally supportive of the overall bill.

“The Senate’s effort is a great advance, and along with a strong House bill, will correct the overreach of this and subsequent administrations for years to come,” Jeanne Allen, Center for Education Reform senior fellow and president emeritus, told the Washington Examiner.

Alexander tried to establish a federal scholarship program that would have allowed students living in poverty to use federal dollars at any public school, private school or supplemental educational service they desire. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., tried to include an amendment to allow low-income students to use their special federal funding at any public or private school they wanted. Both amendments would have allowed states to opt-in, and both fell 15 votes short of the required support.

Allen expressed “disappointment” that the two amendments failed, but CER’s press release on the overall bill’s passage was positive.

An anti-charter school amendment introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, was never voted on.

Losers:

Hardline Conservatives

Heritage Action is a harsh critic of the Senate bill, including it as a key vote on its legislative scorecard. “The 792-page bill represents a missed opportunity to show a clear contrast with the progressives’ failed big-government education agenda,” the group said on July 6. Heritage Action can be a tough crowd. The House version of the No Child Left Behind fix is significantly more conservative than the Senate version, but Heritage Action still actively opposed the House bill for not being conservative enough.

Civil Rights Groups

Civil rights groups attempted to maintain the federal role in keeping failing schools accountable rather than allow that responsibility to fall to state governments. Throughout the months-long legislative process, coalition groups in The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights pushed for more federal intervention in failing schools. The groups successfully pushed several senators, led by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to introduce an amendment to address schools with large achievement gaps. But the amendment failed on the full Senate floor, falling 17 votes short of passage. Three Democrats joined all but one Republican in opposing the amendment. Groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, the NAACP, National Urban League and the Southern Poverty Law Center were involved in the efforts to get the amendment passed.

After the amendment failed, the civil rights groups turned to kill the full bill, because “it throws students of color, students with disabilities, English learners and low-income students under the bus,” The Leadership Conference said in a press release. “It allows schools and districts to take federal funds and yet freely ignore the needs of vulnerable students and doesn’t require any interventions to narrow massive and stubborn disparities in achievement and opportunity.”

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Heritage Action key voted against the House education bill. Heritage Action withdrew their key vote on July 8 but still said the bill was “not worth passing.”