In a surprising development, the U.S. Senate’s education committee unanimously approved a bipartisan bill that would replace the reviled No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law and shift federal education policy to the right.
The 22-0 vote means that the bill, dubbed the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA) of 2015, will go to the full Senate floor with a head of steam that portends well for its final passage. The vote comes after three days of committee hearings and the consideration of nearly 60 amendments, about half of which were adopted.
The bill is the product of several months of negotiations between Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democrat Patty Murray, which produced a bipartisan product that moves federal education policy to the right, though not as far as many conservatives have been hoping.
In a statement, Alexander said it was high time to replace NCLB 14 years after it first passed and seven years after it was supposed to expire.
“[The] consensus is this: Continue the law’s important measurements of academic progress of students but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement,” said Alexander.
The bill includes several components that would loosen the federal government’s hold on education, as it allows states to craft their own plans for improving low-performing schools and lets states determine whether and how to create evaluation systems for teachers. The bill also explicitly declares that setting academic standards is the job of state governments, and bans the Department of Education from using coercive measure to encourage states to adopt programs like Common Core.
However, there are also several concessions to the Obama Administration, such as the preservation of a rule requiring all states to conduct annual standardized tests in reading and mathematics from grades 3-8, with little leeway to try experimental alternatives.
The bill has earned strong but not unanimous praise on the right. For example, the Business Roundtable, a right-leaning collection of business chief executives, has praised ECAA for giving states more leeway without gutting academic expectations.
Not everyone on the right is happy, however. Notably, the Heritage Foundation has described the bill as a “missed opportunity,” and its activist arm Heritage Action is likely to call for the bill to be voted down.
The bill is dividing the left as well. The head of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, opposes the bill in its current form, but the American Federation of Teachers, the other major teachers union, has been far more upbeat, praising the bill as “an important step forward.”
The unanimous vote is a very strong sign that ECAA will be able to pass the full Senate. It still has a long way to go before becoming law, however, as the law will also have to negotiate the more conservative and more sharply-divided House.
The House will have several options, should ECAA arrive at its doorstep. Speaker John Boehner could try to pass the bill itself, potentially sparking an uprising among conservatives who want an education reform bill to go farther in dismantling the power of the Department of Education. Alternatively, Republicans could pass a bill proposed by member John Kline, the Student Success Act, which is similar to ECAA but slightly more conservative. That bill would probably pass along party lines, and would go into a conference committee with ECAA in an effort to create a compromise bill.
Alternatively, the House could ignore ECAA’s passage entirely, almost certainly guaranteeing that NCLB remains in place for as long as Obama is in the White House. That might please conservatives hoping for a more far-reaching reform of education, but it would also lock in the current policy for years, and sustain a status quo where Obama has often unilaterally shaped education policy without seeking Congressional approval.
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