WASHINGTON — In a divided Washington, there's widespread agreement that the sweeping No Child Left Behind education law needs fixing. But finding a fix hasn't been easy.
Civil and disability rights groups have banded together with an unlikely ally, the business-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to oppose a bipartisan update to the law that has been approved by a Senate committee. They say the bill is weak on accountability. The administration also dislikes it for many of the same reasons.
On the other side, many conservatives say the bill gives the federal government too much control. Even some of the Republicans who voted it out of committee, such as Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, cite the same concerns.
It hasn't always been this way. The law, which was championed by President George W. Bush, was passed in 2002 with widespread bipartisan support. Focused primarily on helping poor and minority children, it required annual testing of students. Schools that don't meet requirements for two years or longer face consequences that become increasingly tough – from having to transport children to higher performing schools and offering tutoring to replacing staff.
But critics said teachers started teaching to the tests, that there was little flexibility for states and local districts to design systems that might work better and that the requirements were too stringent. They also said it was unrealistic to expect every child to perform on grade level in reading and math by 2014, as required by the law.
The bill that passed the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Oct. 20 would give states more control and eliminate many of the proficiency requirements. It wouldn't require that states develop teacher and principal evaluation systems – something the administration wants – but would offer incentives to do so.
Federal control would be focused on the bottom 5 percent of schools, which school districts would be required to fix using one of a series of models. The bill also would order states to identify low-performing schools and schools with groups of low-performing students and develop plans to help them.
Students still would be tested annually, something Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Tuesday at a Capitol Hill hearing that he opposes. Paul said the federal government simply needs to get out of schools' way because "the farther we get away from local government to national government the worse the oversight gets." Other Republicans such as Alexander have said that it should be up to states and local districts to develop teacher and principal evaluation systems and to determine when a school is succeeding or failing.
"I do think there's a large philosophical sort of debate and battle that is part of this," Paul said.
Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, testified that he doesn't see fixing schools as a philosophical debate at all.
"I see it as a practical debate affecting real life students and the consequences of a failure to educate them properly," Henderson said.
His organization was among nearly 30 groups that said in a statement that the current bill would allow students to fall through the cracks because states would not have to set a measurable achievement and progress targets or even graduation rate goals.
"Federal funding must be attached to firm, ambitious and unequivocal demands for higher achievement, high school graduation rates and gap closing," the groups said.
The Education Committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and the panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., have said repeatedly there are things in the bill they don't like, but that's how the art of compromise works.
"We can't just throw up our hands and say because it's complex and there's all these moving parts, that we can't do anything and we walk away from it," Harkin said.
No Child Left Behind has been due to be rewritten since 2007. After Congress failed to update it, President Barack Obama announced in September that he was allowing states that meet requirements the administration favors to get waivers around some of the law's unpopular proficiency requirements. The administration said its effort would serve as a bridge until Congress passed a revised law. A majority of states have indicated they will seek a waiver, which could be issued to some states as early as the beginning of next year.
For now, it appears Congress is a long way from passing a bill. A vote on the bill hasn't been scheduled in the Senate. A House committee has taken up rewriting the law in a more piecemeal way but hasn't yet taken up some of the more contentious issues.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The Associated Press that Harkin and Enzi should get a lot of credit for sitting down for hours and working out a bill, even if he doesn't like some of what it contains.
"I'm thrilled that folks are starting to work in a bipartisan way and maybe it's about the only issue in Washington that folks are working on in a bipartisan way," Duncan said. "We keep saying that education has to move forward regardless of politics and regardless of ideology."
Kimberly Hefling can be followed at http://twitter.com/khefling