Republicans are hatching an ambitious plan to rewrite No Child Left Behind this year — one that could end up dramatically rolling back the federal role in education and trigger national blowouts over standardized tests and teacher training.
NCLB cleared Congress in 2002 with massive bipartisan support but has since become a political catastrophe: The law’s strategy for prodding and shaming schools into improvement proved deeply flawed over time, and its unintended failures have eclipsed its bright spots. Today, NCLB is despised by some parents who blame it for schools “teaching to the test,” protested by some on the left for promoting education reform and reviled by Republicans in Congress who say the law represents aggressive federal overreach.
Now Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who will lead the Senate and House education committees, are planning to push an overhaul of NCLB at a moment when backlash in the states has reached an all-time high, opening up new political windows to strip the federal role out of education.
The push to rewrite the country’s main K-12 education law will be “all about Congress taking a red pen and deleting” language, said Mike Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former Education Department staffer.
Alexander spent December huddling with lawmakers, including Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s forthcoming ranking member, to begin hammering out a strategy for a bill that could clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. He’s said he wants a bill on the president’s desk before summer.
The president may be hard-pressed to veto even a very conservative bill, though the administration has signaled in the past it will take a hard line when it comes to preserving annual tests and other provisions that focus on equal access to education in NCLB. The Obama administration ushered in what has been labeled a dismantling of the law by giving states huge leeway on some of its key provisions, but the so-called waiver policy is unpopular in the states in no small part because it helped encourage the proliferation of the Common Core standards.
Lobbyists swarmed Capitol Hill in December to sway lawmakers’ positions in chaotic education debates over how often to test students and what role — if any — school vouchers should have in the law. These debates are set to erupt in January, though some groups have put themselves ahead of the curve: The National Education Association, the country’s largest teacher’s union, has been pushing to roll back testing requirements for years and is seizing on recent anti-testing sentiment in the states to make a fresh case for getting rid of annual tests on Capitol Hill.
Part of the difficulty in rewriting the law is that the most hated parts of the bill are deeply intertwined with its heralded civil rights provisions: The testing requirements, for example, allowed the government for the first time to spotlight the achievement gaps between white students from higher-income families and their peers when those test results were broken down by race and socioeconomic status. NCLB put a public spotlight on schools and districts that were falling flat when it comes to helping disadvantaged students — and pressed them to improve when no one else would.
Civil rights groups say they were caught a little off guard by the sudden resurgence of debate over this aspect of NCLB. They fear Congress will strip core provisions of the law but hope that the national conversation about race sparked by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City will help keep a spotlight on civil rights.
Rep. George Miller, the outgoing ranking member of the House education committee and an original author of NCLB, said he anticipates the business and civil rights communities will rein in lawmakers when it comes to keeping the law’s testing and accountability requirements.
“There’s no future for the NEA in being anti-civil rights for poor and minority children. Historically, that’s never been their position,” Miller said.
The long road to reauthorization
The education world has come a long way since former President George W. Bush pulled together a cadre of education lawmakers — Sens. Ted Kennedy and Judd Gregg and Reps. John Boehner and George Miller — to pass NCLB. The bill expanded and reshaped the federal role in education, requiring states for the first time to annually test students who are in third grade through eighth grade in reading and math. And it put in place new requirements for teachers as well as a host of reform options for schools that weren’t holding up their ends of the bargain.
The bill’s bipartisan support has sometimes been credited to the burst of patriotism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that surrounded its passage in Congress. (The president even gave Miller a nickname: Big George.)
But within a year, Democrats were criticizing Bush for proposing too little funding to implement the law, and several lawsuits followed. By the time NCLB expired in 2007, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle felt it needed changes, though many still stood by its original intent.
That year, lawmakers argued about putting more into the bill to strengthen accountability. But from 2007 to 2014, there were drastic changes in the political landscape: The tea party moved politics at large to the right, and Obamacare ignited concerns about federal overreach across the government. The education debate changed, too: A cheating scandal in Atlanta public schools in 2009 raised questions about how high-stakes testing was affecting schools. And Diane Ravitch — a long-time advocate for the law and former Education Department official — abruptly flipped sides, saying NCLB had been a mistake, and subsequently rose to prominence on the left as an advocate for teachers and overturning the law.
A flurry of proposals to rewrite NCLB in 2007 went nowhere, the same fate as a 2010 White House blueprint for reforming the law. A year later, Senate education committee leaders struck a deal on a bipartisan NCLB overhaul — but it included unpopular compromises that held it back in the Senate and garnered little support from the House. It never got a floor vote.
By the time the 2012 elections moved into full swing, the Obama administration was issuing waivers to states exempting them from the most punitive parts of NCLB in exchange for sketching out their own state plans for improving teacher quality, academic standards and creating better accountability systems.
“The waivers opened a pressure valve” that allowed members of Congress to delay rewriting the law, said Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. Waiver provisions could stretch into the administration.
By 2013, bipartisanship had evaporated, and Republicans and Democrats each had their own proposals for overhauling the law. Kline and Alexander, who was ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee at the time, each had draft bills that stood in opposition to Senate Democrats’ proposals, and the House passed Kline’s bill in the summer of 2013 along party lines. It was dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate.
Now the draft bills released by Kline and Alexander have become starting points for next year’s NCLB push, and the White House may be forced to stake out new positions on the bill. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said the administration can’t support any bill that turns back annual tests — and some Hill watchers familiar with the department expect him to stick with that policy.
The great testing debate
Considering Congress has spent seven years trying to rewrite NCLB, the debate over reauthorization is still plenty chaotic.
Because of congressional turnover and changing politics, some key lawmakers are undecided on big issues. The blowout controversies in NCLB actually amount to only a handful of sections in the 600-plus page law: when and how to test students, how to punish low-performing schools — if at all — and what the law should do to promote good teaching. A host of other critical provisions, like the formula used to allocate money to school districts that serve low-income children, are badly in need of updating but haven’t been touched in years.
Alexander said he’ll hold a hearing on testing soon after Congress returns from recess.
He and Kline have said they’re open to scaling back annual testing, though some suspect they’re capitalizing on the chance to grab hold of an issue they can use as a bargaining chip down the line.
Anti-testing advocates say tests cut into instructional time, forcing teachers to teach only tested content and taking creativity out of learning for students. They see a number of solutions: Students could be tested every other year or a handful of times throughout their school careers, or a sample of students could be tested rather than an entire class.
But experts say it would become difficult to calculate the effect a teacher has on students’ test scores, which education reformers see as a key measure of quality teaching. It would also become impossible to track how students progress from grade to grade and take reams of data out of the pool that researchers use to study schools, said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant education professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.
The problem, Polikoff noted, is that these arguments for keeping tests don’t appeal to parents or the public.
For the civil rights community, collecting annual data allows parents to know how their children are doing, and to an extent, just having the data public can shame schools into doing better.
“We see this as a civil rights bill,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
“I am hard-pressed to understand how you give states federal money with no strings attached,” Zirkin said.
One key player the anti-testing crowd is looking to sway: Murray, a former teacher and union ally whom representatives for school groups hope will be open to their pleas.
Murray was quiet about her position this fall. She has said she’s willing to work with Republicans on a bill but emphasized she won’t overcompromise. A Democratic Senate aide said the senator opposes “overly burdensome testing requirements” but declined to say where Murray will land on the issue, and many suspect she’ll reflect the views of outgoing Senate education committee leader Sen. Tom Harkin, a proponent of tests and accountability.
Murray’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, is also new to committee leadership. Scott was clear in an interview that he sees value in tests that report results broken down by race and other subgroups.
“One of the strongest parts of No Child Left Behind is the fact that the testing exposes systems that are not working,” Scott said, adding that using tests well and not over-testing students is important. Other committee Democrats hope the conversation will be more moderate going forward. Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici introduced a bill in September that would encourage states to eliminate redundant tests that Democrats hoped would jump-start a more nuanced conversation.
The Post-NCLB Congress
With Miller’s retirement, Boehner is the only original author of NCLB still serving in Congress. Boehner has few loyalties to the original law, though he remains a supporter of school choice.
Education advocates see two reasons to think Congress will play for keeps this time: new leadership and discontented constituents. They see both Alexander and Murray as skilled, experienced leaders who care deeply about education. Alexander has been in “deep conversations” with Senate education committee Democrats, a GOP aide said. And he’s stalwart in his belief that taking the bill through an open amendment process in committee and on the Senate floor will give the best possible chance of the Senate producing a bipartisan bill.
But he also knows he’ll need only a handful of Democrats in the Senate, and he can get some, if not all, of them by recruiting Democratic senators with backgrounds in state politics, such as Colorado’s Michael Bennet, an Alexander ally on the committee. The goal is to pass a bill out of committee in February, the aide said.
Even with that fast timeline, the 2016 elections will loom heavily over the debate, said Lindsay Jones, director of public policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
“The megaphone that gets given to people who are going to run for president will be given very quickly,” Jones said. Senators who are expected to announce bids for the Republican nomination, from Rand Paul to Rob Portman, have been vocal on education in the past.
Petrilli has high hopes that Congress can get further along in rewriting NCLB but thinks eventually Republicans will have to decide whether they can come to an agreement with the White House.
Alternatively, they could pass a hard-line conservative rewrite of NCLB and reap the political points as the 2016 elections move into full swing.
That’s the most likely outcome, Petrilli said: The president vetoes a long-awaited rewrite of NCLB, “and Republicans have a bill that they could run on.”