A proposal to completely re-write the No Child Left Behind education law, entrusting state officials and not the feds with more of the responsibility to hold schools accountable, has passed the U.S. Senate by a wide margin Thursday afternoon, 81-17.
In the plodding history of attempts to overhaul the unpopular law, it's a huge step forward — it's the first time the Senate has passed a proposal to reauthorize NCLB since it originally expired in 2007.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was instrumental in taking that step, joining forces with the Senate Education Committee Chair Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to craft a bipartisan compromise and usher the legislation to passage.
But the way forward is still uncertain. The Senate bill now goes to conference committee, where lawmakers will attempt to reconcile it with much more conservative legislation the U.S. House passed this month. That bill does even more to limit the federal government's role in education.
Yet, if anything, civil rights groups hope the bill will emerge with fewer limits on federal officials' powers. As they had wanted, the Senate legislation does continue the mandate that students take a benchmark standardized tests every year between Grades 3 and 8. But they worry that, without enough federal regulation, states will not hold schools accountable for vulnerable students' performance.
Obama administration officials, without uttering an outright veto threat, have said the President cannot support the bill without stronger federal powers. But an amendment by Senate Democrats that would've beefed up those powers failed Wednesday, garnering only 54 of the necessary 60 votes.
Senate Republicans didn't get all they wanted either. Alexander had proposed inserting a provision that would've allow federal Title I dollars, intended to support schools serving large populations of high-risk students, to follow students even if they moved to less-needy schools. That amendment failed last week, and senators struck down a similar amendment on Wednesday, according to Education Week.
But after the final vote Thursday, Alexander and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised the end result as a remarkable consensus.
"This is a really significant bill for the country. To fold all of these disparate interest groups with their separate agendas into a position of support was extraordinary leadership" by Alexander and Murray, McConnell said.
As the process moves to conference committee, Murray said the differences between the House and Senate versions are "stark." She said that if lawmakers to craft a bill the President will sign, the Senate version is the best roadmap for moving forward.
In the Senate, Murray said, “we worked together in a very bipartisan approach so provisions that were agreed just to the far left and the far right are not included. So it’s not a conference you can go to and meet in the middle. This is a conference where the House is going to have to move toward us if they want a bill signed into law.”
Washington state has a lot riding on the outcome of the re-write proposals in Congress; the state's history with the original No Child Left Behind law is particularly fraught.
In the absence of congressional action to fix the law, U.S. Department of Education officials began offering waivers from NCLB's toughest provisions to states. But Washington state lost its waiver over a disagreement between state lawmakers and federal officials about how it structured its teacher evaluation system.
As a result, NCLB now labels practically every school in Washington state as "failing," though overall test scores didn't change much last year.