- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2015

The Senate returns from its Independence Day break Tuesday to rework the unpopular No Child Left Behind law, but lawmakers must navigate dozens of amendments and a push by Hispanic groups to retain federal oversight to protect English language learners and other disadvantaged students.

The bipartisan bill attempts to ease federal control of schools while ensuring that states remain accountable and pursue challenging academic standards for all students. Those competing priorities have prevented Congress from reworking No Child Left Behind since it was expanded under President George W. Bush in 2002.

Teachers, parents, students, school board members and politicians of every stripe have clamored for a reworking of the law and its heavy reliance on standardized testing to demonstrate student progress, which critics say resulted in a generation of public school students who learned how to take tests on reading and math rather than mastering the subjects themselves.

A key feature of the 600-page bill, dubbed the Every Child Achieves Act, is that it keeps the mandatory standardized testing and reporting of student achievement while removing federal penalties on schools that perform badly and leaves it up to states to decide how to hold schools accountable and distribute federal education dollars.

That compromise at the heart of the bipartisan bill ran afoul of Hispanic advocacy groups.

“It’s not enough that we know they are falling behind. We need to know that states are going to do something about it,” said Leticia Bustillos, associate director for education policy for the National Council of La Raza. “We need to make sure that states are doing everything possible to intervene at the appropriate time when students are falling behind.”

The National Council of La Raza is part of a coalition of 39 prominent Hispanic advocacy groups under the banner of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda that is pushing to retain some federal control or penalties in the law.

The House also will attempt to revive its rewrite of No Child Left Behind after pulling the bill in February because of lack of support. The House version faces opposition from conservatives who charge that it doesn’t do enough to get the federal bureaucracy out of local school decisions, as well as from the Hispanic groups and teachers unions.

Senate Republicans called the demand for a return to test-based accountability and to Washington calling the shots a nonstarter, and insisted most Democrats agreed.

“No one wants to ignore serious problems in our nation’s worst schools, but the failed test-and-punish model of No Child Left Behind hasn’t worked, and the civil rights groups should work with states and teachers in the classroom to develop new accountability models that will help our schools succeed,” a Senate Republican aide said on the condition of anonymity.

The White House came out against both the House and Senate bills Monday, stressing the persistence of large achievement gaps between the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and those in the rest of the schools.

Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said neither bill provided enough accountability to ensure that all children have the same opportunity to succeed. But she stopped short of saying that President Obama would veto the Senate bill.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who joined Ms. Munoz in a joint conference call with reporters, said the president would veto the House bill, which he called a major step backward.

The teachers unions shared the White House disapproval of the House version but embraced the Senate bill.

“While the House [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] reauthorization bill fails to fix a broken education law and walks away from a commitment made 50 years ago to provide low-income children with the resources they need to level the playing field, the Senate bill correctly focuses on maintaining equity and resetting accountability measures to focus on teaching and learning, not high-stakes testing,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

Ms. Bustillos said her group also was encouraged by the bipartisan work of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that approved the bill in a unanimous vote in April. She said she was eagerly awaiting amendments on the Senate floor that she expected would address concerns of the Hispanic advocates and other civil rights groups.

The bill, co-authored by Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, represents the latest update of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Committee members spanning the political spectrum, including Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, withdrew dozens of amendments before the unanimous vote that advanced the bill. Senators promised that many of those amendments, some of them controversial, will be offered on the Senate floor.

Mr. Alexander has promised an open amendment process, and scores of amendments are anticipated, likely extending the debate for more than a week.

Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, is expected to offer an amendment that he withdrew in committee that would allow Title I dollars to follow low-income students to public or private schools of their choice.

Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat, also has an amendment he withdrew in committee that is based on his Student Non-Discrimination Act that would protect against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students from harassment and bullying.

Mr. Alexander has said that he can’t guarantee the bill will not be worse after the Senate finishes working on it. “Things can go in any direction,” said Ms. Bustillos. “We are definitely in this for the long haul.”

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