- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hailing it as a bipartisan breakthrough, Sen. Tom Harkin on Tuesday unveiled his long-awaited education reform package, a wide-ranging bill that in many ways reduces the federal government’s involvement in local districts and state education systems.

The move is the final shoe to drop on education reform. The White House, a small group of Senate Republicans and the House GOP have all released their blueprints, and much work remains for lawmakers who hope to craft a grand compromise to replace the decade-old No Child Left Behind law passed under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told reporters his legislation is the product of yearlong negotiations with his counterpart Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican and the GOP’s ranking member on the HELP Committee.

The measure eliminates the infamous “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) target system, which has been in place since NCLB was enacted in 2001. Under the system, schools are labeled “failing” if they fail to meet federal thresholds in math and reading.

In place of AYP, the Harkin bill would allow states to establish their own accountability systems. The bill would mandate that each state identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and the 5 percent that have the greatest achievement gaps between ethnic groups.

Those schools would then move to the front of the line for federal assistance and would be expected to raise their scores significantly over the next few years. If a school doesn’t turn around within five years, Mr. Harkin said, it would have to move to more “radical” options, such as reopening as a charter school or closing.

Mr. Harkin said the lack of federal performance targets in his bill was a key concession to Mr. Enzi, and Democrats would have preferred to see uniform federal benchmarks remain in place.

“This bill does not include all of my personal priorities,” Mr. Harkin said Tuesday, “but I refuse to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

However, many education groups think provisions of the bill would reverse years of progress under NCLB by allowing states, not the federal government, to set the bar on standards of economic progress.

“It’s a little startling that a Republican president could be more aggressive in boosting the achievement of low-income kids and kids of color than the Democratic chairman of the HELP Committee,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president of government affairs at the Education Trust, a D.C.-based advocacy group.

The Education Trust joined the Center for American Progress, the Children’s Defense Fund, National Council of La Raza, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the Leadership Conference in a letter protesting the Harkin blueprint, which critics think will allow states to ease up on their efforts to educate minority children and students with disabilities.

“This is a wholesale retreat from the federal government’s role in sticking up for the kids who get a raw deal,” Ms. Wilkins said.

Mr. Enzi was largely mum Tuesday afternoon following the release of the bill. An aide to the Wyoming senator told The Washington Times that Mr. Enzi “continues to work with Sen. Harkin” and anticipates bipartisan cooperation moving forward.

The Harkin bill doubles down on Race to the Top, the key Obama administration initiative on education, which offers grant money to states that implement approved school reform plans. Race to the Top would remain in place “each year that funds are available,” the bill states.

The measure drew praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who called it a “positive step” toward a more focused and effective federal role in education.

Mr. Harkin is optimistic the legislation can move quickly through the Senate, perhaps in a matter of weeks. He said he would like to see it signed into law before the Education Department’s waiver system kicks in early next year.

The department plans to exempt states from NCLB if they submit their own detailed reform plans, and the White House has called the proposal its “plan B” because, until Tuesday, there had been virtually no signs of bipartisan agreement on education reform.

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