Back To School: Congress Takes Up Controversial Education Bill

Lawmakers debate changes in a key piece of George W. Bush's domestic legacy.

The U.S. House will try again this week to pass a Republican rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law, with party leaders seeking to gain support from conservative members who balked earlier this year.

In February, a lack of Republican backing for the measure caused leaders to pull it from the floor. Because Democrats oppose the bill, Republicans can’t afford many defections among their members.

This time, they plan to allow votes on at least two amendments sought by conservatives, which weren’t going to be permitted in February.

The Senate on Tuesday afternoon began considering its own version of the education bill, which would give states authority to determine to how to hold school districts accountable for student performance.

“The needs of a student in eastern Kentucky aren’t likely to be the same as those of students in south Florida or downtown Manhattan,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “This bill would give states the flexibility to develop systems that work for the needs of their students, rather than the one-size-fits-all mandate of Washington.”

The No Child Left Behind Act was a key domestic policy achievement for President George W. Bush, who worked with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to enact the law, signed in early 2002, to expand equal educational opportunity to students. Despite its bipartisan origins, No Child Left Behind has become a magnet for criticism. Opponents run the gamut from conservatives to teachers unions, have said it focuses too much on standardized testing and interferes with state and local control of education.

Testing Mandates

The House bill, H.R. 5, is intended to cut back the federal government’s role in K-12 education and would eliminate dozens of programs that Republicans say are duplicative.

One proposed amendment, sponsored by Representatives Matt Salmon of Arizona and Ron DeSantis of Florida, would ease federal testing mandates.

In a letter to fellow Republicans on Tuesday, Salmon said his amendment would allow parents to opt their child out of a test without harming their states’ participation rate.

"This will effectively release the federal testing mandate on students, with no penalties to schools,” he writes.

Another amendment, proposed by Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina and DeSantis, would let states opt out of federal education programs without giving up some funding, and allow them to consolidate some federal funding for other education purposes.

The amendment “frees states of this top-down, one-size-all approach to education and empowers the community to determine how to best use federal funding,” Walker said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Overwhelmingly Oppose’

Second-ranking House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Tuesday that his party “will overwhelmingly oppose this bill.”

When Republicans can’t get agreement on a bill, Hoyer said Tuesday, “they move further to the right. They don’t move towards consensus. They move towards greater confrontation.”

Hoyer said he hopes the Senate version, S. 1177, will incorporate a more bipartisan approach and could be the basis for a final bill worked out in a two-chamber conference.

“The Senate bill is a basis from which we could certainly start and I think reach agreement over here, as well,” Hoyer said.

The White House budget office issued a statement urging revisions to the Senate measure to “strengthen school accountability to close troubling achievement and opportunity gaps, including by requiring interventions and supports” in low-performing schools.

‘Take Action’

“Parents, families, and communities deserve to know that when children fall behind, their schools will take action to improve,” said the administration’s statement.

The House bill was set for a vote in February. Dissatisfaction among Republican conservatives -- at that time complicated by other party turmoil over a Department of Homeland Security funding bill -- led leaders to scrap a planned vote.

A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner of Ohio wouldn’t comment on anticipated changes to the bill.

“Every child deserves the opportunity to attend a great school, pursue their dreams and achieve the American dream,” said spokesman Kevin Smith. “That’s what the Student Success Act is all about, and the speaker is proud to support this legislation.”

 (Contributing: Kathleen Hunter)