WASHINGTON — The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday finished its sweeping rewrite of No Child Left Behind that eases coast-to-coast requirements for schools and gives states greater independence to set their own goals.
On a party-line vote, the Democratic-led panel sent to the full Senate a bill that that gives states flexibility to implement reform as long as Education Secretary Arne Duncan approves their plans. Republicans opposed the revisions, saying they give too much power to Washington and to Duncan.
"He has the states over a barrel," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the panel.
Duncan already has given 37 states and the District of Columbia permission to ignore parts of No Child Left Behind in exchange for overhaul plans. Those waivers emerged as a fault line between the parties, with Democrats defending the moves as necessary to avoid harsh penalties for failing to meet requirements and Republicans claiming Duncan abused his authority.
"Rather than have this heavy curtain fall on all these schools, the secretary had to take some action," said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said Duncan overstepped his power in issuing those waivers.
"I would challenge that he doesn't have it," Enzi said. "He's just exercising it and no one has called him on it."
If the Senate version of the rewritten bill becomes law, the other states would have to write similar plans that meet Duncan's standards.
Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House, meanwhile, were preparing to start work on their own version. Their rewrite process was set to start next week and House leaders want to have a vote this summer on their version.
Senate Leader Harry Reid has not scheduled a vote and aides suggest it could be autumn or later.
"Hopefully, sometime this year, we will bring this bill to the floor," Harkin said at the end of two days of committee work on the bill.
Hill aides were pessimistic that the House and Senate will each pass comprehensive education legislation and work out differences between the two parties for President Barack Obama to sign into law.
Even among those tasked with the rewrite, there seemed little enthusiasm.
Midday Wednesday, Harkin had to pause proceedings because too few senators were present.
"Get your senators here between 2:30 and 3 or I'm going to have something to say about the way they run their subcommittees," Harkin told aides to other senators.
After the break, Harkin urged members of his committee to stay in the room until they were finished.
"I ask for your indulgence," Harkin said.
Committee members were deeply divided along partisan lines. A Republican alternative bill failed against unified Democrats and GOP lawmakers continued to offer amendments that would strip the underlying Democratic bill.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind education law was implemented with bipartisan support from President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The law imposed ambitious accountability standards, such as requiring all students to meet achievement targets in math and reading by 2014.
Yet the law expired in 2007 and its standards now are seen as overly ambitious. Congress has failed to agree on a plan to update it but states would be penalized for not meeting the 2001 standards.
Harkin's proposal would scrap the one-sized-fits-all national requirements of No Child Left Behind and give way to standards that states write for themselves. Duncan or his successors as education secretary would have to approve those plans – oversight that Republicans called overbearing.
Students would still be tested in reading and math each year from third to eighth grades, as well as once in high school. Schools would also have to measure students' aptitude in science at least three times between third grade and graduation.
The Democratic rewrite also included provisions that would allow the Department of Education to expand its programs for schools that have experienced violent actions to use federal dollars to pay for new buildings. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., offered the provision in response to last year's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults.
The law as rewritten also would require schools to report how much money is spent on sports, broken down by team and gender.
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