GOP bills press the case for school reform

Effort in House faces Senate fight

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Despite signs that federal school reform legislation is all but dead until at least next year, House Republicans have released the final two pieces of their proposed replacement for the decade-old No Child Left Behind law.

Led by House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, Minnesota Republican, the House GOP late last week released a pair of bills that would eliminate the widely maligned “adequate yearly progress” system of school assessment; reduce the number of federally mandated tests that districts administer each year; and “increase access to or develop alternative certification or licensure routes” for teachers, a move designed to give schools more freedom in hiring instructors.

While the legislation could clear the Republican-led House, it is expected to get little or no support from Democrats, many of whom believe Mr. Kline and his colleagues have derailed the process by pushing partisan bills that will would face an uphill battle in the Senate.

“By abandoning efforts to reach a consensus, this partisanship shuts the door on NCLB reform in this Congress,” Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and his party’s ranking member on the education committee, said in a statement.

“Our nation’s children will be stuck under an outdated law for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Fixing the NCLB law, viewed by most lawmakers, education specialists and school leaders as deeply flawed, has been a priority for the Obama administration, but so far, very little has been accomplished on the legislative front. Blocked by what he labeled a “dysfunctional” Congress, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced last summer plans to grant waivers from NCLB mandates and deadlines to states that design their own detailed reform plans. About a dozen states have submitted their proposals so far, and nearly 30 more are expected to do so soon.

The waiver initiative, dubbed “Plan B” by Mr. Duncan, was also meant to spur congressional action. Mr. Kline hopes that’s still possible, even as both parties dig in for the hyper-partisan politics of a presidential election year.

“Regardless of the differences between elected leaders in Washington, education reform is an issue that will shape future generations, and we cannot afford to let the conversation stall,” he said, adding that the two most recent bills are still in draft form and open to suggested changes from either side of the aisle.

With the exception of a bill promoting and providing start-up money for charter schools, Mr. Kline’s agenda has met stiff resistance from Democrats. After the House panel passed a bill giving states and districts much greater freedom in how they spend federal dollars, Mr. Miller threatened “trench warfare” amid concerns from fellow Democrats that money meant for poor, disabled and minority students would be used for other purposes. That bill has yet to reach the House floor.

Senate reform efforts have fared better in attracting bipartisan support. A package crafted by Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, cleared the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in October with support from both parties, though that legislation also faces an uncertain future when it eventually hits the floor.

Democrats are expected to offer a number of controversial amendments which would likely erode bipartisan support and make the measure even more unpalatable to House Republicans.

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