POLITICS
12/09/2015 11:18 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2015

'No Child Left Behind' Overhaul Passes Senate In Milestone Vote

American schools are about to turn over a new leaf.

J. Scott Applewhite/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) with Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) after the Senate voted to end debate on the Every Student Achieves Act on Dec. 8, 2015.

The Senate voted on Wednesday to pass an overhaul of No Child Left Behind called the Every Student Succeeds Act. The move comes after the House of Representatives voted to pass the overhaul last week, and over eight years after the No Child Left Behind Act originally expired in 2007.

The measure passed the Senate 85-12. The White House said in a statement that President Barack Obama would sign the bill Thursday.

“We’ve created an environment that I believe will unleash a flood of excellence in student achievement,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor and Pensions, immediately following the vote.

“It is a great step forward. … The work must now begin in our schools,” echoed Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the HELP committee’s ranking member. 

The original No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002, had a sweeping impact on federal education policy. The new act keeps some of those policies in place, while also shifting some power away from the federal government and back toward the states.

No Child Left Behind mandated annual math and reading tests for students in grades three through eight, as well as once during high school. It emphasized standardized testing and consequences for states and schools that performed poorly.

While the law's strictest requirements are now largely seen as unworkable -- promoting a one-size-fits-all approach to education -- the law is credited with helping to expose achievement gaps between different groups of students. The law required schools to break out their standardized test scores based on categories like race and disability -- meaning that if an entire population of students is performing poorly, it's harder for the school to camouflage that fact.

J. Scott Applewhite/ASSOCIATED PRESS
President George W. Bush marks the anniversary of his No Child Left Behind law during a visit with students, teachers and national educators at the General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia, Jan. 8, 2009.

The Every Student Achieves Act maintains this federal standardized testing schedule, but gives states the power to determine how to evaluate teachers and how to hold schools accountable for their performance. States will have more power to evaluate schools beyond their test scores, potentially looking at factors like graduation rates. Still, states would be required to intervene in the country's worst-performing 5 percent of schools and enact programs of their choosing to help turn them around.  

The Senate voted to pass the Every Student Achieves Act after months of political brokering, in a move that is being hailed a bipartisan success. Republicans pushed to see power restored to states, while Democrats fought to maintain civil rights protections for vulnerable students.

Both Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) were key architects of the rewrite. 

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, Alexander emphasized that the new law will restore power to local communities.

"It moves decisions about whether schools and teachers and students are succeeding or failing out of Washington, D.C., and back to states and communities and classroom teachers, where those decisions belong," Alexander said. "This law expired eight years ago. It has become unworkable. If it were strictly applied, it would label nearly every school in America a failing school."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the bill in a speech at the Learning Forward Annual Conference on Tuesday, though he also indicated he would have done some things differently if it were up to him.

Under Duncan, the Obama administration has allowed states to apply for waivers that free them from the most stringent aspects of No Child Left Behind in exchange for agreeing to promote policies supported by the White House. The new law will eliminate this patchwork of waivers while dialing back the Department of Education's power overall. Under the new law, the Education Department will not be able to influence or incentivize states to adopt new standards or policies, like it did with the waivers or with the Common Core State Standards. 

"Whereas No Child Left Behind prescribed a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to struggling schools, this law offers the flexibility to find the best local solutions -- while also ensuring that students are making progress," said Duncan.

"I’m not saying this is the bill I’d have written myself," he went on. "No compromise ever is. But fundamentally, the idea of America as a country that expects more of our kids, and holds ourselves responsible for their progress -- that vision is alive and well."

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said in a statement that the bill's passage shows what is possible when "Congress puts its partisan interests aside and works towards making high-quality education a priority for every child."

"The Every Student Succeeds Act is not perfect," Clinton said, "but it puts us on a path to provide states and teachers flexibility to serve the needs of their students while also ensuring schools are held accountable to raise achievement for all students -- particularly for low-income students, students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities."

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