WASHINGTON — No one thinks it’ll be easy, but the House and Senate are embarking on negotiations to merge two differing education bills that would rewrite the nation’s much-criticized No Child Left Behind education law.
On Thursday, the Senate overwhelmingly approved its version of the education legislation, a week after the House passed a more conservative measure.
For years, Congress has tried to update the law. It expired in 2007, though its mandates remained in place. Critics have complained there is too much testing and the law is too punitive for schools deemed to be failing. The Obama administration began issuing waivers to dozens of states to get around some of the law’s strictest requirements when it became clear they would not be met.
Here are five things to know about congressional efforts to replace No Child Left Behind:
Both the House and Senate bills seek to significantly lessen the federal role in the nation’s public schools.
Both would maintain the federally required annual tests in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, as well as science tests given three times between grades 3 and 12. The bills return to the states the power to determine whether and how to use those tests to assess the performance of schools, teachers and students — instead of having federally prescribed school improvement plans.
Another area of agreement: the Common Core academic standards.
The bills say the Education Department may not mandate or give states incentives to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, such as Common Core. The Common Core standards were drafted by the states with the support of the administration but have become a rallying point for those who want a smaller federal role in education.
The biggest difference in the two bills has to do with school choice and funding.
The House measure, sponsored by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., includes so-called portability. It allows federal money to follow low-income children to public schools of their choice instead of current law, which has those dollars remain at the struggling schools.
Democrats do not support the idea, and the Obama administration has made clear it won’t back the House bill. Lawmakers voting on the Senate bill, sponsored by Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, rejected the idea of adding portability to their measure.
THE WHITE HOUSE
The White House has threatened to veto the House measure. After the Senate version passed Thursday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered lukewarm praise for the Alexander-Murray bill.
Duncan and several civil rights groups had urged lawmakers to strengthen the accountability measures in the bill, but an amendment that aimed to do that was rejected by the Senate. It would have required states to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, public high schools where two-thirds or fewer students are graduating on time, and public schools where poor, disabled, minority, or English-language learning children were not meeting state achievement goals. States and schools would then have to design plans to turn around the schools.
Duncan pressed for changes once the bill goes to conference “to strengthen the bill before it reaches the president’s desk.”
The Senate voted overwhelmingly for its education rewrite, by a vote of 81-17.
Fourteen Republicans voted against it, including presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
While it had the support of almost all Democrats, three voted against it: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, New Jersey’s Cory Booker and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
The House vote was more partisan, 218-213. No Democrats supported the measure and 27 Republicans voted against it.
Negotiating a compromise. The Senate and House will have to find consensus and merge the two bills.
After the Senate vote, Alexander, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, said, “There are some issues that are different, but I foresee a successful conference.”
Said Kline, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, “There is a lot of work that lies ahead, but I am confident we will find common ground and send a bill to the president’s desk.”