On strict party-line votes, a key House panel on Tuesday cleared the final two pieces of the Republican education-reform agenda.
Not a single Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee voted for the bills, part of a larger package to replace the decade-old and widely maligned No Child Left Behind law. While the legislation will likely clear the GOP-led House sometime this year, its prospects in the Democrat-controlled Senate are dim.
The deep partisan divide on display Tuesday, with Democrats charging that the Republican approach would return American education to a pre-civil rights era with little or no oversight from the federal government, makes it unlikely the two sides will reach a compromise in the foreseeable future.
"To my deep disappointment, No Child Left Behind will likely remain the law of the land," said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and his party's ranking member on the committee. "The Republican proposals will take our education system back decades."
The measures, introduced by committee Chairman Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican, aim to roll back federal involvement in education policy, which his party strongly believes is best developed and implemented at the state and local levels.
The "Student Success Act" would eliminate the unpopular "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) benchmark instituted under NCLB, instead calling on states to design their own accountability systems that must be in place within two years of the act becoming law. It also allows states to use some Title 1 dollars for competitive grants, though the awards would have to be used for narrowly defined purposes, including tutoring. Under the bill, some Title 1 money could also be used for school improvement.
The second bill eliminates the "highly qualified teacher" label under NCLB, which many argue places far too much weight on a teacher's educational background, rather than his or her actual performance in the classroom. It also requires states to develop within three years their own teacher-evaluation systems, which must include assessments of an instructor's classroom leadership.
"The policies in these bills weren't drawn up behind closed doors in Washington," Mr. Kline said. "They come from the ideas, accomplishments and creativity of superintendents, school chiefs, principals and parents around the country."
The measures immediately came under fire from teachers unions, civil rights organizations and other groups, many of which share Democrats' fears that minority students, English-language learners and children with disabilities would be put behind a permanent eight ball under the GOP proposals. Their concerns are based on the notion that, without federal mandates, school districts would use Title 1 dollars and other federal funds meant to aid disadvantaged students for other purposes.
The bills "shift funds away from people who need it the most," said Rep. Rush D. Holt, New Jersey Democrat.
But Republicans argue that increased federal funding, whether it be for low-income and minority students or for other purposes, has done little to boost student achievement and turn around failing schools.
With little hope of comprehensive education legislation this year, the White House has been granting waivers from NCLB to states that develop their own detailed reform plans. Eleven states have already been granted waivers, and about two dozen more were expected to apply by Tuesday's midnight deadline.
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