WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's something most Democrats and Republicans in Congress can agree on — an update to the Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law is much needed and long overdue.
This week, the Senate and House take up rewrites of the 2002 law, with lawmakers seeking to finally resolve a key question they have struggled with for years: how much of a role should the federal government have in ensuring a quality education and boosting achievement for children, poor and affluent alike. Getting enough support to send a bill to President Barack Obama that he'll sign also may be no easy task.
Even before the floor debate began in the Senate, the White House weighed in late Monday — saying the Obama administration can't support either the Republican-drafted bill in the House or the bipartisan measure in the Senate. The Senate was scheduled to take up its version Tuesday, the House on Wednesday.
The Senate bill is sponsored by Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and the panel's senior Democrat, Washington's Patty Murray. It passed the committee unanimously in April. No small feat, agree Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, and Murray, a former preschool teacher — who had to win over conservatives on the panel like GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky as well as more liberal members, such as Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The measure would keep the reading and math tests mandated in No Child Left Behind — but in a significant move, shift to the states, and away from Washington, decisions about how to use those tests to measure school and teacher performance. It also would expressly prohibit the federal government from requiring or encouraging any specific set of academic standards. That's a reference to the Common Core standards, which were drafted by the states with the support of the administration but have become a rallying point for those who want to see a reduced federal role in education.
"I have always wanted us to have high national goals and high standards," Alexander said in an interview. "But in our country, I believe you have to do that state by state, and community by community ... you just can't impose it from Washington D.C. You might get short-term results, but you're going to get a long-term backlash."
Murray, ahead of the Senate debate, said the bipartisan bill is an attempt to fix a law that isn't working. "I'm looking forward to working to improve and strengthen this bill throughout the process and I will be focused on ensuring all kids, especially traditionally underserved students, can learn, grow, and thrive in the classroom," she said.
Republicans are expected to press for more flexibility for the states.
The Obama administration said Monday that both the House and Senate bills lack the strong accountability provisions that it is seeking.
"The Senate bill is missing key pieces and we cannot support it as it currently stands," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters. As for the House bill, he said the legislation was "a major step backwards for our nation and its children" and appealed to Republicans to strike a more bipartisan chord.
Emphasizing the need for Congress to come up with a bill acceptable to the White House, Duncan and Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, released a report citing sizable achievement gaps between students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and those in all other schools — a 31-percentage point gap in reading and 36-percentage point gap in math.
Munoz said any education bill must deal not only with identifying those struggling schools but also require that states and schools have a plan to close the gap.
The House bill is sponsored by Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The legislation gives the states more control over accountability and includes a school choice provision that would allow public money to follow low-income children to different public schools — something Democrats don't support.
The House abruptly canceled a vote on the Kline bill in February when it became clear that it didn't have enough support from conservatives to pass. The White House has said Obama would veto it.
Seeking to close significant gaps in the achievement of poor and minority students and their more affluent peers, No Child Left Behind mandated annual testing in reading and math for students in grades three to eight and again in high school. Schools had to show student growth or face consequences. But critics complained the law was rigid, overly ambitious and punitive, and there was too much testing.
Anticipating that No Child's goal that all students should be able to read and do math at grade level by 2014 could not be met, the Obama administration has been granting states waivers around some of the law's more stringent requirements. In return, schools agreed to certain conditions, like using college- and career-ready standards such as Common Core. The administration has granted waivers to 42 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.