The House of Representatives voted Friday to pass a replacement of the long-expired No Child Left Behind Act, the first time the nation's sweeping federal education policy law has been updated on the floor of Congress since its passage 12 years ago. Only Republicans voted for the bill, yielding 221-207 in favor of the bill, called the Student Success Act.
In 2001, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, with bipartisan support from politicians such as Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). That law required for the first time that states accepting federal education money show their schools were making progress.
The 2001 bill required states to use a measure called "adequate yearly progress" to demonstrate results, which further measured progress among socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Since its implementation, the AYP proviso has been roundly criticized as overly punitive, because it requires that nearly 100 percent of schools have students proficient in reading and math by 2014, and uses too blunt a measure to quantify performance.
The new bill, written by House education committee chair Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), shows how far Republicans have departed from Bush's big-government ideas on education. The bill abandons NCLB's signature metric and has no requirement that states set annual goals for schools. "Hindsight is now 20-20 and we can now identify the law's weaknesses," Kline said Friday. He called it a "one-size-fits-all mandate that fails to provide schools any meaningful information about their students' performance."
The bill also sets diminished sequestration levels as the baseline for future school funding -- which opponents have said amounts to "gutting" education funding -- and consolidates scores of federal education programs. Its proponents say it will give states flexibility and empower parents by getting the federal government out of their way.
The bill faces a tough path forward. On Wednesday, the Obama administration threatened to veto Kline's bill. In the Senate, a bill by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) that maintains some of NCLB's accountability structure cleared the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee in June. Even if Harkin's bill can pass the Senate, the bills are so far apart that reconciling them in conference will likely prove impossible.
Harkin criticized the House bill Friday afternoon after the vote. "Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is one of my highest priorities. Teachers, families and children of this nation need the certainty of a reauthorization that will ensure access to comprehensive education, teachers who are the most effective, and standards that are world-class," he said. "Unfortunately, the House bill, H.R. 5, falls short on all these counts."
NCLB was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007, but since Congress failed to do so, the Obama administration has allowed states to wiggle out from some of NCLB's tougher targets in exchange for agreeing to specific education policies preferred by the White House.
In a statement issued Friday afternoon, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan derided the bill and reiterated the administration's veto threat. "It marks a retreat from high standards for all students and would virtually eliminate accountability for the learning of historically underserved students -- a huge step backward for efforts to improve academic achievement," he said. "It would lock in major cuts to education funding at a time when continued investments in education are the only way we can remain competitive on the world stage."
Kline's bill united an unlikely coalition in opposition. Civil rights and education groups, teachers unions and the Chamber of Commerce have fought against its passage. Along with Democrats, they have argued that by removing some of the heavier reporting requirements, the bill allows states and schools to get away with neglecting poor and minority students.
On Thursday, House Democrats railed against the bill, calling it the "Letting Students Down" Act. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said the bill allows states to mask poor performance.
In response to concerns that states would backslide without the fed's supervision, Kline told HuffPost that his bill keeps a key NCLB rule in requiring states to break out their performance data. "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.
Despite Kline's desire to give states more flexibility and leave behind the heavy federal involvement, his bill initially required teacher evaluations based on students' test scores. But on Thursday, the House passed an amendment that removed this requirement, a move seen as helping to secure previously uncertain tea party support for the Student Success Act.
On Friday, the House also adopted an amendment by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that would create public school vouchers. "The current system is clearly leaving some kids behind," Cantor said. The voucher would allow parents to use Title I money -- a fund devoted to helping schools with high numbers of students in poverty -- to fund education in any public school of their choice. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said that it would not work as intended, because parents choose schools based on convenience and safety.
"I know the gentleman wanted to have vouchers. This is an imitation voucher, but this doesn't work," Miller said.
An amendment by Miller that would have replaced the Kline bill with performance goals closer to those of NCLB failed by a vote of 193-233 on Friday, though it did garner a vote from Republican Rep. Michael Turner of Ohio.
Shortly after the vote, the National Education Association union's president, Dennis Van Roekel, issued a statement deriding the bill. "While H.R. 5 contains some positive provisions, as a whole it erodes the historical federal role in public education -- to be an enforcer of equity of opportunities, tools and resources so that we can level the playing field. Yet this House bill walks away from creating equity in education -- and at a time when poor and disadvantaged students and their families need it the most," he said.
The right-leaning Business Roundtable also released a statement bemoaning SSA's passage. "While many parts of H.R. 5 align with the kinds of reforms Business Roundtable believes are necessary to strengthen education in the United States, the bill does not go far enough to ensure accountability," said president John Engler. "Without adequate measures to ensure student performance, postsecondary educators and employers cannot trust that a high school diploma means college and career readiness."
This post has been updated with reactions to the bill's passage from business and education groups, and from Sen. Harkin and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
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