- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2015

Both chambers of Congress have now voted to scrap much of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind education plan, meaning the government will continue to ship billions of dollars to states, but will cut or loosen many of the strings attached to the funding.

But the Senate, which cleared legislation Thursday on a bipartisan 81-17 vote, and the House, which passed a different, more conservative version in a divided vote last week, also rolled back some of the key parts of President Obama’s education agenda, including the Common Core education standards and benchmarks for teachers themselves.

Gone are the yearly progress goals, which schools had been struggling to meet. The transparency measures, which require schools to report to the community, remain.

“We keep what works in No Child Left Behind, which is the report card, but we get rid of what doesn’t work,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Education Committee, who led the Senate’s rewrite. “This is the consensus that supports this bill — keeping the important measure of student achievement is essential to keeping that consensus.”

The federal financial footprint in education will remain big — and could even increase as the House and Senate head to a conference committee to hammer out a final deal, and as leaders need to splash money to win over reluctant lawmakers’ support.

That financial commitment scares some conservatives, who fear the government can still use its money to bully schools into complying with national mandates.

“No one should be fooled. The federal government will retain a massive footprint in elementary and secondary education,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

He said particularly troubling was the blank check in the Senate bill, where Mr. Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on his committee, couldn’t figure a final total and left it to be filled in later — “never a fiscally responsible approach,” Mr. Holler said.

Three senators running for president — Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — were among the 14 Republicans who voted ‘no,’ saying the bill didn’t do enough to nudge the federal government out of the classroom.

Three Democrats — Sens. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, Cory A. Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — voted against the final package after failing to attach the type of intervention measures the White House demanded to lift up the lowest-performing schools.

Still, Mr. Alexander and Ms. Murray won overwhelming support for their approach, which saw Republicans concede on some conservative priorities such as vouchers in order to win a rollback of onerous federal intrusion.

“It sends a powerful message that equity really matters and that schooling must be more about teaching and learning than testing and measuring. More must be done to address the needs of historically disadvantaged children, but this bill offers a significant piece of the puzzle,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Mr. Alexander and Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, tried to attach a voucher system later on, but their amendments didn’t muster the votes.

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, failed to win enough support for an amendment that would raise billions for pre-kindergarten programs by halting corporate inversions, in which U.S. companies lower their tax burden by reincorporating overseas.

Yet his Pennsylvanian counterpart, Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, won unanimous approval for his amendment to keep schools from “passing the trash” by recommending known child abusers to other schools.

Both House and Senate bills scrap the yearly progress grades, which had been designed to try to force schools to show continual improvement. But schools were supposed to be at peak proficiency by last year, and none were close.

The bills also get rid of No Child Left Behind’s penalties that were meant to push ill-performing schools to shape up.

“This is giving the keys of the car back to the states when it comes to the biggest issues — especially in the design of their accountability systems and what they choose to do to schools that are not making the grade,” said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

He called it a pro-reform bill that gives states the power to figure out what works. And while some might go the wrong way in their reforms, he said, it refocuses the debate back on children and learning.

While the law President George W. Bush championed was the chief target, Congress is also poised to roll back some of the Obama administration’s biggest education initiatives.

One of those is Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s push to evaluate teachers’ performance based on test scores — a move that ran into problems with teachers’ labor unions and Democratic lawmakers. Those evaluations are likely to be nixed in the final deal that emerges, analysts said.

Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, said the legislation reflected the mood among Democrats and Republicans that the federal role in shaping curriculums and testing is too big.

“Both bills would certainly roll back the fed footprint from what it was in No Child Left Behind, in particular by eliminating average yearly progress (AYP) and the punishments for school districts that didn’t meet that AYP goal. That is a really significant step back from where we were,” Mr. McCluskey said.

Still, he spotted a potential loophole he said could give the Education Department an avenue to continue to exert control. The House and Senate bills require states to submit their testing and evaluation plans to the department, and the secretary can reject those plans.

Even though there are restrictions on what criteria the secretary can look at, Mr. McCluskey said a determined secretary might be able to keep kiboshing plans until states kowtow to his priorities.

“This potential to use this kind of backdoor veto to ultimately get what the secretary wants is a huge, or potentially huge, problem,” he said.

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