Are these the last days of No Child Left Behind?

The House staked out its territory on federal education policy Wednesday evening — by a narrow margin.

The Senate is working through its version of an education bill.

Then the two houses have to agree on something, and find something President Obama will support as well.

This is the uncertain road to reauthorizing the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Congress has not reauthorized the law since 2001, when it passed the far-reaching and now politically unpopular No Child Left Behind law.

Let’s take a closer look at the process so far, and the prospects.

The House vote. The House passed its version of ESEA reauthorization Wednesday — dubbed the Student Success Act.

The vote was a squeaker, as the bill passed on a 218-213 vote. And the vote breakdown reveals some deep ideological divisions: No Democrats supported the bill, and 27 Republicans defected and voted no. (More on Wednesday’s vote from the Associated Press.)

Raul Labrador
Rep. Raul Labrador

But 19 Democrats joined Republicans in inserting an amendment to the bill, enabling parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. The language allows parents to opt out of testing without jeopardizing a state’s federal funding. (More on the amendment from the Washington Post.) Currently, states must administer standardized tests in third through eighth grades and in high school — and make sure that 95 percent of students take the tests, or risk federal penalties.

Another amendment didn’t make the cut. This one would have removed strings from federal funding — effectively distributing them as block grants. (Idaho will receive $264.3 million in federal funding for K-12 in 2015-16.) The amendment failed, but the fact that it received a hearing on the House floor appeared to appease some House conservatives, according to the National Journal.

Mike Simpson
Rep. Mike Simpson

Idaho Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson voted for the bill.

“(Simpson) will closely examine the Senate bill as compared to the House passed version and urge his colleagues to support important Idaho priorities such as Impact Aid which many Idaho counties and schools depend on,” spokeswoman Nikki Wallace said Thursday.

Impact Aid is one of the federal programs that bolsters state K-12 funding — particularly in districts with a preponderance of tribal lands or other federal lands.

The Senate debate. The Senate has begun discussing its version of an ESEA bill. And unlike the House, this bill enjoys a measure of bipartisan support; its lead sponsors are Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash.

But that doesn’t ensure smooth sailing in the Senate, as Education Week’s Lauren Camera noted during the opening day of debate Tuesday. “Below the surface of pleasantries and backslapping, a very decisive policy rift continued to grow—whether or not to beef up accountability provisions in the bill.”

Mike Crapo
Sen. Mike Crapo

Murray has pledged to push for more accountability measures in the bill, Education Week reported. That sentiment is shared by the Council for Chief State School Officers, which represents the states’ school superintendents. “We believe this bill includes many solid provisions but can also be improved upon before final passage,” CCSSO Executive Director Chris Minnich said this week.

For Idaho’s senior senator, Republican Mike Crapo, testing is one sticking point. Crapo is undecided about how he’ll vote, spokesman Lindsay Nothern said; that will depend on what happens to the myriad amendments on the docket. However, Crapo is concerned about federal mandates in the bill, including the testing mandates.

Jim Risch
Sen. Jim Risch

In January, Crapo introduced a bill to roll back federal education mandates; co-sponsors include Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and GOP presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. One section of the bill would forbid the federal government from mandating tests or assessments.

But Crapo hasn’t ruled out supporting the Senate’s ESEA bill, because it does incorporate elements from his education bill, said Nothern.

If the Senate passes a bill. Should the Senate pass its own version of ESEA reauthorization, it will fall to a House-Senate conference committee to hammer out the differences and arrive at a compromise.

Alexander has downplayed the differences between the House and Senate. “Our goal is to present the president with a bill that he’s comfortable signing,” he said, according to the National Journal.

That may be easier said than done.

Obama has threatened to veto the House’s version of the bill. And after its passage Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a statement that yielded no ground. “House Republicans have chosen to take a bad bill and make it even worse. Instead of supporting the schools and educators that need it most, this bill shifts resources away from them. Instead of ensuring states and districts improve struggling schools and serve all students, it makes that optional.”

Meanwhile, back in the states … There seems to be widespread support for doing something to replace No Child Left Behind. Still, the act remains the law of the land unless and until Congress and the White House can agree on something different.

And 43 states, including Idaho, have some form of federal waiver from No Child Left Behind.

Idaho is working on a one-year extension of its waiver. Among other things, the waiver eliminates Idaho’s five-star school ratings system; mothballs the state’s Schoolnet instructional management system; and sets the guidelines for teacher evaluations, a key element in Idaho’s new career ladder to boost teacher pay.

And as the ESEA debate unfolds, the state is still haggling over the waiver.

State Department of Education officials are meeting this week with federal officials “to provide feedback” on the waiver, said Jeff Church, a spokesman for state superintendent Sherri Ybarra. After that, the department will discuss the waiver with Idaho education groups before putting it in place.

Ybarra is not weighing in on the competing ESEA reauthorization bills.

“We will continue to be aware of the work that is being done at the federal level, but will be focused on our efforts with the flexibility waiver to best support schools and students,” Church said Thursday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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