Senate Passes Bipartisan NCLB Rewrite

On Tuesday, we visited the faraway land of U.S. Congress, where the U.S. House recently (and narrowly) passed a sweeping reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind. I had planned on using today’s post to offer a brief update on the U.S. Senate’s ongoing NCLB reauthorization efforts today, but then those crafty senators went and passed the darn thing. So yeah, we’re going to talk about that.

The Senate’s effort has been spearheaded by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) and Patty Murray (D-Wash), who have been working hard to build a bill that could garner bipartisan support in the Senate. If votes are any indication, it looks like that effort was successful; the bill passed this afternoon on an 81-17 vote. I don’t know how much attention you pay to Congress (or even how much you should), but that’s pretty impressive. Even more impressive is the fact that it appears to have sailed through with relatively little drama on the floor.

In many ways, the Senate bill (called the Every Child Achieves Act) looks similar to the one passed by the House earlier this month (called the Student Success Act). It maintains yearly testing requirements in grade 3-8 in math and reading, requires high school students to test at least once in those subjects, and keeps grade-span testing requirements in science. It also prohibits the federal government from having a hand in how states choose their standards, requires states to identify underperforming schools without prescribing specific interventions or even requiring such interventions, and opens the door to use federal funds for things like early childhood education.

The bill also removes the “highly qualified” requirement for teachers, as well as the requirement that states develop and implement teacher evaluation systems. (For the record, I hope Colorado would continue fighting back against the “Widget Effect” with strong accountability systems regardless of whether they are required by federal law or waivers.)

Generally speaking, then, both bills appear to be moving in the same general direction. Yet there are also important differences between the two. The Senate bill does not contain a provision making Title I funds (used for helping at-risk kids) portable despite attempts by both Senator Alexander and Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to add such a feature. It also does not eliminate the 95 percent test participation requirements in NCLB—the first step toward paving the way for more expansive opt-out rights—while the House bill does. In addition, some Democrats have voiced concerns that the bill’s accountability mechanisms fall short of protecting disadvantaged students.

Overall, the House bill is decidedly more hardline than the Senate bill. Yet the House bill only barely sneaked through the chamber, while the Senate bill managed to achieve something that almost (almost) made it look like Congress is working. And, of course, there’s that pesky veto threat on the table when it comes to the House bill. That’s not to say that Arne Duncan was exactly jumping for joy about the Senate bill, but at least he and the president haven’t outright threatened to kill it.

Much depends now on whether the House and Senate can reach a good compromise in conference committee—and whether President Obama will sign such a compromise. Still, this is as close as we’ve ever been to a rewrite of No Child Left Behind, which is so old that it’s beginning to look like the shambling policy equivalent of a zombie.

I still wouldn’t hold your breath, but I think it’s now safe to say that a reauthorization is a real possibility. As always, I’ll be watching.