WASHINGTON -- Debate over the No Child Left Behind revision hit the Senate floor earlier than expected on Wednesday after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) busted up a morning committee markup of the bipartisan, 860-page education bill for running longer than two hours.
A discussion that started out weighing the merits of a revised federal education law quickly turned into a back and forth about congressional process, with most parties agreeing on the substance, broadly speaking, of how No Child Left Behind must change.
The bill, which is the product of months of negotiations between Senate education committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Ranking Member Mike Enzi (D-Wyo.), would roll back federally mandated sanctions for not meeting performance benchmarks that states and school administrators see as cumbersome. No Child Left Behind has been up for reauthorization since 2007.
While Paul had earlier said he wants to improve or do away with No Child Left Behind, he filed 74 amendments to the bill and then called to end Wednesday's committee meeting. Paul is now asking for a three-week reading period to review the bill and then hearings with testimony from school superintendents, teachers and principals.
"All I'm doing is saying we should not waive our normal rules. ... People wonder why bills have such bizarre things in them -- nobody reads them," Paul told reporters following the committee meeting. "They get passed, and then a month later we'll find out that they're requiring teachers to do four somersaults before they allow them to teach math in the morning."
Harkin disagreed with Paul's reluctance to move forward this week.
"It isn't a way to stop the bill. It's just a way to delay it for a long time," he told reporters following the markup. "How can we fix NCLB if [the committee] can't even meet?"
Harkin then spoke on the Senate floor, asking for unanimous consent that his Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee be authorized to meet further.
At that, Paul raised an objection. "I find it tragedy that we are operating here in the Senate by introducing an 868-page bill with 48 hours to read it," Paul said. (Actually, Harkin dropped the bill last week, adding a manager's amendment on Monday.)
Paul called on the committee to include teachers in educational policymaking, echoing the language of teachers unions, which have traditionally been Democratic stalwarts. At one point, he quoted from a letter signed by the National Education Association regarding the federal role in mandating teacher evaluations.
"I've yet to meet one teacher who's in favor of No Child Left Behind. They abhor it," Paul continued. He added that he doesn't believe in federal control of schools.
"I would like teachers to propose amendments to my office to fix No Child Left Behind if we're not going to scrap it. I would like to hear from superintendents," he said.
"Repeal it or fix it," Paul concluded.
Harkin said that's what the current bill does. "He wanted to do away with No Child Left Behind," Harkin said. "That's exactly what this bill does. It gets rid of No Child Left Behind and some of the narrow prescriptions ... and does, in fact, return a lot to local control."
Harkin also dismissed Paul's claims that the process of drafting the bill didn't allow him to voice his views, saying Paul never approached Harkin's staff. "I'm willing to listen to his amendments," Harkin said. "But how can we hear his amendments, consider his amendments, if the senator won't even allow us to meet under the rules of the Senate?"
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) then spoke. "The senator speaks of the tragedy of this process," Bennet said, referring to Paul's remarks. "I'll tell you what a tragedy is. The tragedy is that only nine of 100 children living in poverty in this country in 2011 can expect to get a college degree. That's a tragedy."
Bennet pointed to "the fact that when I became superintendent in the Denver public schools, on the 10th-grade math test there were 33 African-American students proficient on that test and 61 Latino students proficient on that test."
There are 100 seats in the United States Senate. When I walk in this room, I think about what if the 100 people that were here were children living in poverty in the United States? Here's how many would have a college degree -- that chair, that chair, that chair, that chair, these four chairs and this one. That's it. The rest of this chamber would be occupied by people that didn't have the benefit of a college degree.
The discussion continued with a back and forth between Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who decried the federal government's role in education, and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who said his work on education reform began long before the bill came out. "I have spent more time on this bill than any other bill in my time here," Franken said.
The discussion ended with Franken suggesting they lacked a quorum.
Before Paul called to end the morning meeting, the education committee was able to get through only Burr's and Franken's proposed amendments.
Burr's amendment would have removed a measure allowing states to keep as much as 10 percent of Title I funding at the state level, but it was denied by the committee in a 13-9 vote.
An amendment proposed by Franken and Bennet to eliminate a school district's ability to transfer school personnel without mutual consent was adopted almost unanimously, save for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- a former U.S. secretary of education -- who told his colleagues that adopting it would "put federal handcuffs on local school decisions."
In his closing statements at markup, Harkin said, "If senators think we will be deterred in our determination to move this bill through the committee, I can assure you that's not the case. We can start early, we can stay late."
The committee is scheduled to reconvene either Wednesday night or Thursday.
UPDATE: 6:17 p.m. -- The Senate education committee has announced that markup of the No Child Left Behind bill will resume at 8 a.m. on Thursday.