WASHINGTON -- The Senate education committee completed a bipartisan markup revising the No Child Left Behind Act on Thursday evening. After 13 hours of debate, the panel sent to the full Senate a bill that offers localities more control and reworks assessment and performance mandates.
"People were complaining about an 868-page bill -- we've added 200 pages today," Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said just four hours before the panel adjourned.
Thursday's successful markup followed a session cut short Wednesday morning because of objections from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who insisted the committee should not meet while the full Senate was in session -- a standing rule that is often waived. Despite Paul's official objections, raised Wednesday night, to meeting while the Senate was in session on Thursday, an agreement was reached Thursday morning to continue.
The revised bill -- negotiated between Enzi and Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) -- pulls back on federally mandated sanctions based on assessments of teachers and schools. States would be given more flexibility and control, but federal intervention would still be possible in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.
The Obama administration has voiced concern that the Harkin-Enzi bill doesn't require enough accountability from states. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said this week that the lack of a provision mandating that states develop teacher and principal evaluation systems threatens the forward movement of education reform.
Nonetheless, the bill was voted out of committee by a count of 15-7. A vote by the Senate will likely take place before Thanksgiving, Harkin told HuffPost, with the legislation passing both houses "possibly" by Christmas.
In any case, the Senate floor vote will come after a Nov. 8 hearing on the revised bill, as requested by Paul. Teachers, school superintendents and other education experts will be invited to comment.
Harkin told HuffPost that he is "hopeful" the bill will become law before implementation of waivers allowing states to forego certain No Child Left Behind rules, such as those requiring all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. President Barack Obama and Duncan introduced the waiver option after expressing frustration that congressional gridlock had prevented formal revisions to the law despite bipartisan agreement that it needed to be fixed. Their announcement sparked the introduction of several measures to revise the law.
Of the 144 proposed amendments to this Senate bill, just over 20 were adopted by the committee during Thursday's markup.
Paul discussed only three of his 74 proposed amendments, none of which were adopted. The first one called for repeal of No Child Left Behind in its entirety, a proposal he admitted "may be symbolic."
In his second amendment, Paul took an only slightly less drastic approach, calling for all No Child Left Behind sanctions to be made voluntary, which would effectively reduce the law's requirements to mere suggestions. During the official recording of votes, Paul was the only senator to support those two measures.
The senator's third amendment called for removal of the bill's requirement that all special education teachers be "highly qualified." The amendment, which was dismissed in a 10-12 vote, did not receive support from many senators across the aisle, including Harkin.
"I think ultimately we will not lose support of disability groups," Harkin, who is known as an advocate for people with disabilities, told reporters following the markup. "That's the one thing that I'm very delighted and that I'm happy about is that we kept our support for high-quality special education."
Amendments that passed included a measure from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to allow students moved around in foster care to remain at a school of their choosing if it is deemed in their "best interest." Also passed were an amendment from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) allowing students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools to transfer to a higher-performing school and an amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) requiring schools seeking competitive grants to disclose data about the dropout rates of students moving from the 8th grade to the 9th.
Many amendments were withdrawn by committee members, with several promising to readdress them on the Senate floor.
Lawmakers remain optimistic about the legislation's progress, although the Senate bill must be reconciled with piecemeal measures shepherded through the House by its education committee chairman, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.).
"I think [Kline] is determined to get some legislation through," Harkin said. "Both sides agree that we've got to do something about fixing No Child Left Behind."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article initially characterized the requirement in the bill for "highly qualified" special education teachers as a new one. This is not a new requirement.
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