Senate committee votes in bipartisan fashion to approve No Child Left Behind replacement

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Friday, October 21, 2011 at 2:37 pm

After a marathon two-day markup session that vacillated wildly between partisan hostility and bipartisan comity, the education bill to overhaul No Child Left Behind is out of committee following a 15-7 vote, with three Republicans joining Democrats in a yes vote.

Some 20 amendments were approved during the process, which ended just before 9 pm Thursday, including ones with language on principal training, loosening restrictions on teaching oral traditions in Native American or indigenous school areas, and low-income student access to early college high schools.

Some notable amendments were not passed, including Sen. Rand Paul’s curious proposal to repeal No Child Left Behind — even though the bill in question seeks to effectively accomplish that end goal.

Committee chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) praised the proceedings. “Tonight is a victory – both for our nation’s children and for bipartisanship,”he said. “After more than two years of hearings, debate, and negotiations, the HELP Committee has come together in a bipartisan way to approve comprehensive legislation to improve education for our nation’s children.

“This bill will ensure that students graduate from school ready for college and careers and focus federal resources where they will be most effective. It will replace punitive sanctions and labels with supports for teaching and learning, increase flexibility for innovation on the local level, and distribute resources equitably to ensure a top-notch education for every American student.”

Indeed, a handful of Republican measures were taken up in the Democratic-controlled committee.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) successfully introduced an amendment offering more school choice options to low-income students enrolled at persistently failing schools.

Another, by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), clarified language on formula funding, an often contentious topic as a few percentage points can make a big difference in how much federal funding states can receive. Sen. Harkin quipped, “formula fights are always bad,” but the North Carolina Senator said his new language for Title II of the Elementary And Secondary Education Act would allow the section’s $3 billion in allotments to be “distributed equally.”

Title II of the ESEA supports state- and district-level efforts to improve teacher quality and instruction.

And Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska) managed to successfully introduce language mostly specific to Alaska in two amendments.

One of these amendments is discussed by TAI here, while the other addresses rural school districts in the state that have difficulty finding highly qualified teachers. Her amendment permits a form of distance learning provided that the off-site teacher is highly qualified and is in charge of the lesson plan.

Still, despite ranking member Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) voting for the final version of the bill, he said in a statement the “markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was an important first step, but we still have a lot of work to do when the bill reaches the floor of the Senate.

Sens. Alexander and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) were the two others to vote with the majority.

In general, the bill moves away from some of NCLB’s benchmark requirements, instead seeking to prod states towards more efficient oversight measures, data collection technology, and monitoring systems.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) sponsored or co-sponsored three amendments. One included language similar language to a principal and teacher preparedness bill he introduced with Sens. Alexander and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) called the GREAT Act that was endorsed by reform-minded education groups like Teach for America, New Schools for New Orleans, and the Charter School Growth Fund. The amendment places greater emphasis on selection criteria for instructor training academies and would rate academies based on how well its graduates improved student performance. The program, according to the amendment, is voluntary.

Another little item was an amendment that would expand federal research under a program similar to ARPA-ED. While conservatives worry this could centralize education reform and create a “National School Board”— one of the most used terms throughout the markup process — the Obama administration touts it as harnessing the research energy of public facilities to improve student learning.

Education policy Rick Hess of conservative American Enterprise Institute stands behind the basic premise of the amendment.

Throughout the discussions, the theme of the role of the federal government in local education cropped up — specifically, whether an authority that introduces a tenth of the funding towards school budgets can mandate too heavily how states should govern. Conservatives on the committee argued the ESEA bill still imposes itself too much, while more liberal members maintained federal money is voluntary, and states can opt out if they do not want the money.Of course, most states are financially strapped and rely on federal dollars to help pay for crucial items like textbooks and additional resources for high-need students.

The committee is slated to convene in early November. Even as the bill is now ready to head to the full Senate floor, leadership honored Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) request for a hearing in exchange for his support of the markup process.

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