Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray Tuesday released an ambitious proposal to replace No Child Left Behind and overhaul how the federal government handles education.
While the bill would block federal promotion of Common Core and roll back the powers it has under NCLB, questions remain about whether the bill has a hope of winning the approval of Republican lawmakers.
The bill, dubbed the Every Child Achieves Act, will be marked up by the Senate education committee on April 14 when the Senate returns from its two-week spring recess.
The bill comes close to two months after an initial effort by Alexander, who chairs the education committee, faltered due to its inability to garner any support from Democrats (which suggested Obama would veto it). Alexander then entered into negotiations with Murray, working to create a bipartisan bill that can be passed by Republicans and signed by President Barack Obama.
To assuage Democrats, the bill includes one big concession to Obama, which could leave Republican education reformers irate.
It bars federal Title I dollars (currently given to schools serving low-income communities) from being tied to individual poor students, which would allow states to have those dollars follow children when they go to a charter school (or even a private school).
“Title I portability,” as it is called, is a major goal of conservative education reformers, who view it as a way to promote school choice at the federal level. Democrats, however, have maintained the law would cause big funding cuts to the nation’s most cash-strapped schools while allowing money to be funneled to for-profit charter school operators.
Another win for Democrats is that the bill sustains NCLB’s requirement that students be tested in math and reading every year from grades 3-8, as well as once in high school. Several Republicans pushed to eliminate any testing mandates, but Democrats have insisted they are necessary to maintain accountability for schools.
Other parts of the bill are more appealing to conservatives. It mentions Common Core by name, and says explicitly that the federal government may not influence the academic standards of states in any way.
“The federal government may not mandate or incentivize states to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, including Common Core. States will be free to decide what academic standards they will maintain in their states,” the bill says.
Under the Obama administration, Common Core has been promoted through programs like Race to the Top and, more recently, through waivers to NCLB that states are more likely to receive if they follow the Core.
The new bill would ban the Department of Education from using any waivers with strings attached, which would substantially curtail the president’s power to unilaterally shape education policy without congressional involvement.
Other parts of the law would somewhat reduce the footprint of the federal government in education. States are given more authority over what accountability systems for schools and teachers should look like, and they are also given substantially more leeway in crafting plans for the improvement of low-performing schools.
Missing from the bill is any new funding directed towards early childhood education, which Democrats have sought.
While the bill has genuine bipartisan credentials, moving federal policy to the right while also making some notable concessions to the president, whether it has any hope of passage remains unclear. One grim harbinger for its future is how a proposal floated by Rep. John Kline, the Student Success Act, has fared in the House of Representatives. That bill includes Title I portability, and is generally more conservative than the new Senate proposal. Nonetheless, it has failed to pass the House thanks to opposition from some Republican lawmakers and groups such as Heritage Action, who argue the bill is insufficiently conservative.
If Kline’s measure isn’t enough for the party’s right-wing, it’s hard to imagine that skeptics will be immediately supportive of Alexander’s approach. (RELATED: No, Congress Isn’t About To Mandate Common Core)
On the other hand, part of the opposition to the Student Success Act was fueled by the fact that Obama had already threatened to veto it, leading conservatives to question why shouldn’t propose a more ideal vision if they were destined to be vetoed anyway. If the Alexander/Murray proposal receives no such veto threat, then Republicans may be enticed by a genuine chance to move education policy to the right.
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