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No Child Left Behind Act At Center Of House Hearing, Sparring Philosophies

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John Kline is frustrated.

The Republican representative from Minnesota and chair of the House Education Committee says his constituents have been telling him for years of the federal government's intrusion into their classrooms.

"I've been hearing ... for years now that the current system does not give them the ability to move money where they need it," he told The Huffington Post in an interview Tuesday. "You've got money for these 80-something federal programs, but you need it someplace else. We want to make sure they have the flexibility to do that."

That's why Kline's committee will hold a hearing Wednesday and likely vote on the Student Success Act, his rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush-era education law that Republicans and Democrats are looking to leave behind. Where NCLB increased the federal footprint in America's schools, Kline's bill reduces it dramatically.

Under the legislation, schools would not have to meet federally prescribed performance goals -- a proposal markedly different from current law, the Obama administration's waiver system and a competing bill offered up by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Kline's bill also consolidates a slew of programs specifically devoted to things like English language learners and neglected children into Title I, a program devoted to helping schools with poor students.

Kline's bill is expected to pass through his Republican-dominated committee, and he says House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told him to expect a floor vote in the middle of July. But even if it passes the full House, it's hard to see a situation in which a conference committee could knit together the House's and Senate's wildly different visions of NCLB reform.

"There's very little common ground between Harkin and Kline. It's difficult for me to see how they would be reconciled," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a member of the House committee.

When asked whether it's possible to reconcile the bills, Kline said, "I certainly hope so." He said he expects to "move into conference and start sorting out the differences."

No Child Left Behind is the bipartisan, 2001 reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It expired in 2007. The law required that schools with low-income students meet annual goals, as determined by standardized tests, in order to qualify for federal money. Since its implementation, NCLB has been criticized for creating a culture of "teaching to the test" and for meting out harsh consequences based on blunt metrics that rely on those same tests.

Congress has failed to rewrite the bill, so the Obama administration has offered states waivers from the law's most stringent parts in exchange for agreeing to specific portions of the Obama education agenda. Thirty-seven states have received waivers.

Kline's bill explicitly restricts the education secretary's waiver authority. "This secretary has decided to go beyond what the law allows in my view and grant these temporary conditional waivers," Kline said. However, like the waivers, Kline's bill also mandates teacher evaluations that include some degree of student standardized test scores.

Civil rights advocates and Democrats say Kline's bill goes too far in letting states off the accountability leash. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), an architect of NCLB and the committee's ranking member, has said the bill is lax on standards and undermines poor and minority students by removing the federal government's role as a state watchdog.

Polis, the Colorado representative, agrees. "It's a non-starter for anyone who's serious about education reform," he said. "Kline's bill is a major retreat on accountability -- states would no longer have to have systems that measure student growth. It's a major step backwards."

In response to concerns that states would backslide without the Education Department's heavy hand, Kline said his bill keeps a key NCLB rule: requiring states to report student test scores by ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language ability and special education designations. "We maintain the disaggregated data so all parents involved in the system can look and see where there's a problem and take action," he said.

He also added that continuing to restrict Title I money primarily for the use of poor students is a good backstop. "We don't let [school administrators] spend it for other things, but we let them move it around so they can get what they need," he said.

A coalition of civil rights and business groups, including the Education Trust, La Raza and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, circulated a statement that lashes into Kline's bill. "We believe the legislation falls short of the lessons learned" from NCLB's shortcomings, the groups wrote. "We are disappointed that the legislation does not demand targeted support and real improvement for students stuck in low-performing schools."

Democrats on the House committee plan to release a substitute amendment that would likely reinstitute annual goals and learning standards approved by higher education institutions. "If it's anything like last year's [amendment] schools would have to have performance targets," said Anne Hyslop, an education analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

But the amendment is unlikely to pass, leaving no clear end game for the bill. "I'm not sure what the purpose is," Polis said.

The reauthorization process, Hyslop says, allows House Republicans to air their views against the Obama administration's education policies. "The administration has been really active in terms of setting the K-12 agenda," she said. "Congress really hasn't been stepping up. This is their counter-shot."

During Wednesday's hearing, Kline says Republicans could introduce amendments that allow Title I money to follow poor students to private schools, essentially a federal school-voucher program. While Kline says he personally backs such a policy, he left it out of his bill because it's controversial, and he didn't think potentially blowing the chances of the broader bill was worth it.

"I'm in favor of giving parents as much choice as we can," he said. "It's also incumbent upon us to get legislation passed. ... I don't want that debate to derail progress toward meeting those objectives. If it's the will of the House it's the will of the House but ... we still need to move this legislation forward."

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