Brushing off criticism that Congress is moving too slowly on education reform, a key House committee chairman said Thursday that he believes he can push a package of five reform bills through the House this year and end the "draconian" approach of the expiring No Child Left Behind Act.
"We are moving," Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, told a small group of reporters in a briefing. "We're going to [move bills] at the pace that I can move them."
Mr. Kline and his Senate counterpart, Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, have come under fire in recent weeks for not moving quickly enough to meet the Obama administration's Sept. 1 deadline for a replacement for NCLB.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has threatened to bypass Congress entirely and implement a "Plan B" — waivers from NCLB mandates for states that demonstrate reforms. The details of the waiver proposal have not yet been announced, and Mr. Duncan has stressed that he would prefer to see reform accomplished through the legislative process.
Mr. Kline said he believes he can make that happen, and he pushed back at Mr. Duncan's assertion that the House is sitting on its hands.
"That's just not right," he said.
His committee already has passed the first two bills in his package. The first eliminates more than 40 "duplicative" federal programs, and the second provides financial incentives to states if they replicate or expand successful charter schools. Both are awaiting votes on the House floor.
The third bill, Mr. Kline said, will give school districts more freedom to use federal education dollars as they see fit, eliminating many of the restrictions on how pools of money can be spent locally.
The final two bills will be introduced sometime in the fall and likely will be much more controversial, Mr. Kline said.
Education reform "gets more complicated and difficult as you go forward," he said.
The fourth bill will deal with teachers, aiming to break what Mr. Kline called the outdated notion that all successful teachers have multiple degrees from costly colleges or universities and years of experience under their belts. That model no longer works, and the legislation will encourage districts to expand their definition of what constitutes "effective teachers," he said.
The final bill likely will l face the most resistance.
It would reform the accountability process for schools across the country, and Mr. Kline said the NCLB's "adequate yearly progress" yardstick "will not exist" under the new system. Under the current system, schools can be classified as "failing" if students don't make significant improvements each year on standardized reading and math tests, along with other measurements such as graduation rates. NCLB calls for 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math by 2014, a goal Mr. Kline said is impossible to meet.
Mr. Duncan has estimated that more than 80 percent of schools will be labeled "failing" this year under NCLB, underscoring the need for Congress to act quickly.
Mr. Kline said he shares that sense of "urgency," but he said getting the House and Senate on the same page remains a significant hurdle. Instead of taking his piece-by-piece approach, he said his Senate counterparts instead want to pass one broad reform bill.
"I understand the temptation to do that," Mr. Kline said, but said his approach is more likely to draw bipartisan support.
He said he has regular conversations with Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and his party's ranking member on the House committee. But if Democrats don't want to play ball, Mr. Kline said, "we're going to do it my way."
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