The U.S. Senate passed a sweeping new bill Thursday that aspires to update and substantially overhaul the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Not only that, but the bill, titled the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), passed 81-17, a show of bipartisan support that is an increasing rarity in a sharply divided Washington. Three Democrats dissented along with 14 Republicans, including presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
NCLB became law in 2002, and significantly increased federal oversight in education by mandating that states conduct standardized tests in reading and math while creating penalties for schools that failed to make progress towards universal academic proficiency. The law was supposed to be reauthorized by 2008, but gridlock in Congress prevented that from happening, while the law’s provisions were regarded as more and more broken by educators.
“Last week, Newsweek Magazine called this the ‘law that everyone wants to fix’—and today the Senate’s shown that not only is there broad consensus on the need to fix this law,” Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said in a statement sent to The Daily Caller News Foundation. Alexander spent months guiding the bill through Congress, in collaboration with Democrat Patty Murray. “Remarkably, there’s also broad consensus on how to fix it.”
Even though it has substantial Democratic support, ECAA would shift federal education policy substantially to the right. While it keeps standardized testing requirements, it gives more authority to state and local governments in deciding how to evaluate schools and teachers. The bill also explicitly bars the Department of Education from requiring or coercing the adoption of Common Core or any other set of academic standards. Despite being more conservative, President Obama has signaled he is willing to consider signing the bill.
The vote comes a week after the House of Representatives passed its own bill, the Student Success Act (SSA), which also replaces NCLB. That bill is more conservative, though (it passed with no Democratic votes), and lawmakers will have to craft a final compromise between the two bills before anything can be sent to the president. One point of friction will be on standardized tests; the House bill included a provision guaranteeing parents the right to opt their children out of testing, while the Senate rejected an equivalent amendment. (RELATED: House Passes No Child Left Behind Replacement)
The compromise process will prove to be a difficult balancing act. Several House Republicans rejected even SSA as insufficiently conservative, and others just barely supported it. If a compromise bill is perceived as making too many concessions to Democrats, they could revolt and attempt to derail the bill.
On the other hand, Obama has already explicitly said he would veto the SSA, so if no concessions are made, a reform bill will never be able to become law.
Final passage came after several days of votes on dozens of different amendments, some of which could have derailed the bill. Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, sought to add an amendment that would have cracked down on illegal immigrant “sanctuary cities,” which likely would have destroyed Democratic support had it passed. Several Democratic amendments, such as a federal prohibition on anti-gay bullying and a measure to create a climate change education program, were rejected as well.
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