- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2013

The House of Representatives has advanced its latest attempt to replace the unpopular, 12-year-old No Child Left Behind law, but deep divisions in Congress and in the education community mean comprehensive school reform almost surely will be put on hold once again.

The GOP-backed Student Success Act attracted no Democratic votes, was immediately panned by teachers unions and other groups, and even saw a dozen Republicans defect and vote “no.” It passed Friday by a vote of 221-207.

The latest reform effort comes as the Department of Education moves forward with its waiver program, described as the Obama administration’s “Plan B” education policy. Thus far, the administration has granted waivers from No Child Left Behind to 39 states and the District; another eight states are waiting to see if their proposals meet the approval of the Education Department.

But House Republicans see their bill as not only a better alternative to the federal law, but also as a more permanent, concrete solution than the current waiver system.

The Democrat-controlled Senate disagrees and is advancing a counter proposal.

Both sides agree that a long-term solution is needed and that federal waivers are a stopgap at best, but they have yet to agree on the specifics of a broad reform package.

Almost the exact same scenario played out on Capitol Hill two years ago, with Republicans driving a piece-by-piece education reform agenda through the House while a bipartisan bill in the Senate appeared promising at first but eventually died.

The passionate negative reaction to the GOP-drafted Student Success Act is a clue that the bill, like previous attempts to reform federal education policy, faces a very uncertain future.

“The so-called Student Success Act betrays the fundamental promise we make to our children — that all children deserve a high-quality public education that enables them to not only dream their dreams, but achieve them,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union. “That Republicans would push through a bill that starves schools of resources … shows just how disconnected they are.”

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, also bashed the bill just hours after it passed.

But the bill isn’t without its supporters, many of whom have been critical of federal overreach in setting educational policy for the states. The National School Boards Association last week urged passage of the measure, arguing that it “makes significant improvements to restore greater flexibility and governance to local educational agencies.”

GOP leaders in the House tout the bill as being an alternative to the federal “one-size-fits-all” approach established by No Child Left Behind. The bill eliminates many of the most unpopular parts, such as the “adequate yearly progress system,” and gives states the ability to draft their own accountability benchmarks with far less interference from the federal government.

“This is a monumental step forward in the fight to improve the nation’s education system and ensure a brighter future for our children,” said Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The legislation “will tear down barriers to progress and grant states and districts the freedom and flexibility they need,” he said.

A controversial amendment, put forth by House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, allows Title I money to follow children to the school of their choice.

That amendment drew scorn from Democrats and others; even the National School Boards Association, while backing the bill as a whole, came out against that provision.

Title I dollars are meant to aid disadvantaged and low-income students, and Democrats routinely oppose any attempts to grant greater freedom in how that money is used.

That amendment alone likely would sink the whole bill in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has joined with fellow Democrats to put forth their own legislation to replace NCLB.

Reconciliation between the House and Senate approaches, at least at this point, seems extremely unlikely.

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