Letters and amendments are flying on the eve of the first markup of a comprehensive rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law, providing a glimpse into the sausage factory that produces federal policy for America's schools and teachers.
On Wednesday morning, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will begin its markup of the 860-page bill, Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) wrote in negotiations with Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). The bill would require states to have "college and career-ready standards" for student performance and would replace a system of proficiency targets that labeled many schools as failing with a focus on federal intervention in underperforming schools. With the committee's support, the bill would then move to the Senate floor.
Although it's unclear what the end game would be in the House of Representatives -- whose education committee chairman, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), said he is committed to rewriting the law in a piecemeal fashion -- Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. secretary of education, said Monday he doesn't see any reason why "Congress can't fix No Child Left Behind and send it to the president before Christmas."
But if it were up to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kan.), the markup wouldn't be happening. "I urge the Chairman and Ranking Member to cancel tomorrow's mark-up and allow everyone concerned the time necessary to read the bill," Paul wrote on Tuesday to Harkin and Enzi. "We have not had enough time to allow the teachers, superintendents, and principals in our states who specialize in educating our children to review this legislation."
According to the Daily Caller, Paul, who doesn't think the federal Department of Education should even exist, conceded at a National Heritage Foundation event on Tuesday that his request for more reading time is a strategy to hold up a bill he sees as an overreach by the federal government. "We will make a stink of the fact that nobody is going to read it," he said.
Paul plans to hold up the process with "70-something" amendments, as a staffer put it. "Our number one amendment will be repeal of the entire No Child Left Behind," Paul said Tuesday.
Senators are still preparing the amendments they plan to present at the markup. For example, staffers for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has already introduced a tutoring bill, are reportedly preparing an amendment that would ease the process of creating charter schools. Representatives for McCain did not return calls for comment.
One amendment from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) would allow the Department of Education "to replicate DARPA in order to undertake research and development on critical education issues," according to a Bennet staff summary. Other Bennet amendments include plans to create a rural education office at the Department of Education and start a competitive state-based principal training program.
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) seeks to amend the bill with measures on financial literacy, principal competence in turnaround schools and college affordability for low-income students.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has plans to "Alaskanize" the law with amendments that would remove some regulations and provide states with more authority and flexibility over education. "It's essential to fix the one-size-fits-all Washington-based mandates that don't fit our state's unique needs -- in order to make sure not only that every Alaskan child has access to an excellent education, but that there is accountability for taxpayer dollars spent in our schools," Murkowski said in a statement.
The Harkin-Enzi bill would enshrine the administration's Race to the Top program, a school reform competition for federal dollars. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) is reportedly preparing an amendment to get rid of that provision. His office did not return requests for comment.
Meanwhile, as HuffPost reported Monday, the bill changed over the weekend with the removal of federally mandated teacher evaluations that took student performance into account. Several education groups are preparing a letter to Harkin and Enzi decrying the removal. Democrats for Education Reform issued a statement Tuesday to that effect, predicting that the markup will be "a wasted opportunity of epic proportions."
But the American Association of School Administrators, which represents 13,000 school system managers and criticized the bill last week, praised the switch -- which some credit as bringing Sen. Alexander on board.
While HuffPost has so far seen no amendments to bring the teacher evaluation component back, an amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would define a "highly qualified teacher" as someone who has completed a state-approved preparation program or who has passed a rigorous state-approved performance assessment. It would also require parents to be notified of the status of non-highly qualified teachers and would entitle parents to receive a comparison of the number of highly qualified teachers at their child's school relative to other schools in the state.
That amendment provoked the ire of the New Teacher Project, a reform group that produces research papers and provides school districts with alternatively certified teachers. President Tim Daly wrote Harkin and Enzi a letter on Tuesday saying that the Sanders amendment could endanger the project's programs, which account for 20 percent of all teachers hired annually in some cities, and reduce diversity among teachers. "In an industry desperately trying to diversify itself to better mirror the demographics and learning needs of American students, this amendment would have an unfortunate and undesirable effect," Daly wrote.
A Sanders staffer not authorized to speak on the record advised that the amendment would not spell the end of alternative certification programs.
UPDATE: 8:27 p.m. -- On Tuesday evening, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, sent the Senate education committee a long letter detailing what it sees as the strengths and weaknesses of the bill. "The key to success will be whether educators and students feel a real difference in their schools and classrooms between the current and new law," wrote the NEA's advocacy director, Kim Anderson, and its federal advocacy manager, Mary Kusler.
The letter lauds the bill for leaving teacher evaluations up to states and local districts, maintaining collective bargaining rights, improving assessments for English language learners and rolling back No Child Left Behind's punitive accountability system that scores schools and states based on student proficiency.
"Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done if students and educators are to see real, meaningful, and workable change from the law," the letter continued.
The NEA criticized the draft for including "no requirement for multiple measures of school or student performance" and for not requiring non-test-based teacher evaluations under the Teacher Incentive Fund, which doles outs competitive grants. The group had harsh words for the continuing "focus on testing in narrow subject areas" and for the lack of a transition plan. And the NEA condemned the bill's models for federally mandated "turnaround plans" for underperforming schools, saying that only one model "involves whole school reform."