09/15/2011 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Republican Senators Alexander, Burr, Isakson, Kirk Introduce Four Bills To 'Fix' No Child Left Behind

Former U.S. education Secretary Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) announced Wednesday a plan to introduce new legislation to reauthorize the federal No Child Left Behind Act along with Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

Their bills would "fix" NCLB by strengthening state accountability systems, improving teacher and principal professional development programs, combining federal education programs and increasing the number of charter schools, they said on a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

Their proposals break the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into four separate bills:
  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Amendments Act of 2011 eliminates the national Adequate Yearly Progress system but maintains public reporting requirements. It pushes accountability systems and teacher licensure requirements to states and asks states to identify their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.
  • The Teacher and Principal Improvement Act of 2011 reinforces teacher and principal evaluation systems at the state and district levels. It authorizes the Teacher Incentive Fund to motivate states and districts to compete to determine the best way of rewarding educators for high performance.
  • The Empowering Local Education Decision Making Act of 2011 combines 59 programs into two flexible streams of funding and places states and districts in charge of selecting programs and initiatives.
  • The Empowering Parents Through Quality Charter Schools Act 2011 expands and supports charter schools.

The No Child Left Behind Act is a much-maligned decade-old federal education law that called for regular standardized tests, disaggregation of testing data by racial subgroup, and increasing sanctions for states that fail to meet proficiency standards leading up to a requirement of about 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

It has been up for reauthorization since 2007, but Congress has stalled. House Republicans want to reauthorize NCLB through piecemeal bills, while the Senate is preparing a broad, sweeping measure.

This gridlock led U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to announce this summer that he would unilaterally grant states waivers from some of its provisions in exchange for signing on to his preferred reforms. The move angered some congress members, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Oh.), who yesterday released a statement that chided the administration for "acting unilaterally and undermining reform efforts." A July memo by the Congressional Research Service that questioned whether Duncan has the legal authority to make such a move.

Alexander is also set to introduce a bill today that would "clarify" Duncan's authority over granting waivers. While he supports Duncan's move to grant waivers, the senator wants the process "to be based on state request, not on Washington mandate," Alexander said Wednesday. He also noted that the ideas proposed in the four bills are consistent with those of Duncan and President Barack Obama, adding that "passage of these bills would eliminate most of the need for waivers."

Alexander's and Isakson's announcement comes one day after the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan NCLB bill that alters the federal government's ability to start charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run, adding new oversight provisions.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who chairs the House's Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, passed by an overwhelming margin of 356 to 54.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House's education committee, called the passage of the charter bill an "important first step" in education reform legislation.

Kline has also moved a bill out of committee that would slash half of NCLB's federal education programs and another one that would give more states flexibility over spending federal education funds intended to serve disadvantaged students.

What didn't make it into a bill was an amendment -- that Kline disfavored -- that would have allowed charters to shirk NCLB's requirement of disaggregating performance data by economic and minority subgroups.

In a statement Wednesday, political action committee Democrats for Education Reform gave a hat tip to both political parties for the Tuesday bipartisan defeat of the charter schools amendment, saying that it "showed that it's possible to place these principles over politics."

But DFER criticized the Republican legislators in the same statement for Wednesday's bills proposal, arguing that the bills do not mandate that states and districts set goals for closing achievement gaps or improving student performance.

"While some of the specifics in these proposals have merit, the overarching effect of these policies would be to set education reform back by more than two decades," DFER Director of Federal Policy Charles Barone said.

Wednesday's move represents a break from the Senate's rank-and-file plans, as Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), leaders of the senate's education committee, have been in regular negotiations over a new NCLB markup. Harkin has said the committee expects to release a markup by the end of the year.