After 13 hours of debate, a key Senate panel approved its long-awaited education reform bill with bipartisan support Thursday night, a major step in the process of overhauling the 10-year-old No Child Left Behind law.
The process was nearly derailed Wednesday, when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul objected to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee markup of the bill by using a procedural tactic known as the "two-hour rule," which requires unanimous consent for a committee to conduct business for more than two hours once the full Senate has begun its daily session.
The conservative Republican said he and other Republicans needed more time to review the 868-page measure, crafted by HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican. He also lamented the fact that there have been no education reform hearings since he took office in January.
Mr. Paul planned to object again Thursday morning, but struck a deal that allowed the process to go forward.
"It was a classic compromise," Mr. Harkin told reporters after the 9 p.m. vote, at which the proposal passed by a 15-7 margin.
The committee has tentatively scheduled a hearing for Nov. 8, before the bill reaches the Senate floor. Witnesses have not yet been announced, but the agreement seemed to satisfy the Kentucky senator, even though he ultimately voted against the legislation.
Other Republicans, however, joined with Democrats and approved the proposal, which replaces many parts of NCLB such as the "adequate yearly progress" federal assessment system and limits federal intervention to the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in a state and the 5 percent with the highest achievement gaps between ethnic groups.
Mr. Enzi, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee voted "yes," but each made clear they expect a transparent, robust debate on the Senate floor and hope to make substantive changes.
Republicans have already succeeded in making one significant change after a measure offered by Mr. Alexander passed with bipartisan support and adjusted a key portion of the bill.
Under the original draft, the bottom 5 percent of schools would have to choose among six turnaround models, four of which would mandate that the principal be fired and another that calls for 35 percent of teachers to be ousted, though they could reapply later for their jobs. Schools also could choose to reopen as a charter school or close.
Mr. Alexander's amendment adds a seventh option: permitting a state to develop its own turnaround model, which would then be subject to approval by the federal education secretary.
States "may come up with a smarter idea than any one of us could," Mr. Alexander said in defense of his amendment, which drew unanimous support from Republicans. Four Democrats and Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, also voted in favor of the plan.
Mr. Harkin voted against it and expressed fear that future education secretaries could be influenced by members of Congress or would only approve reform plans from states controlled by their own political party.
"I'd like to insulate the secretary from that political pressure," Mr. Harkin said just before the vote.
Before settling on Mr. Alexander's amendment, Republicans tried to alter the turnaround provision even further.
Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, proposed axing all six turnaround models and giving all power over reform plans to the states. His amendment met stiff resistance from Democrats, some of whom say the federal government is already relinquishing a great deal of power under the Harkin plan and must at least retain some on the worst schools in the country.
Sen. Michael F. Bennet, Colorado Democrat, said the turnaround proposal outlined in the Harkin bill "is a federal intrusion, but it's an important one."
The bill "is the biggest retreat that we've had in domestic policy in this country that I can remember," he said. "We have given up in this bill oversight over 95 percent of the schools. We're down to the bottom 5 percent, the worst of the worst."
Other approved changes to the bill include: a measure allowing schools to implement computer-adaptive testing; an amendment requiring schools to better track students who drop out after eighth grade; and a measure letting foster children be placed in a new family to continue attending their old school if it's deemed to be "in the best interest of the child."
Dozens of amendments were withdrawn, and senators from both parties promised to resurrect them during Senate floor debate, setting up a lengthy showdown that calls into question whether a reform bill can reach President Obama's desk by Christmas, as leaders in both parties hope
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