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Capitol Report: July 24, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

On July 18, the House of Representatives started doing something that it hasn’t done since 2001—debate a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Student Success Act (HR 5) would rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, but the road from House approval to White House desk is long and full of obstacles—including a veto threat from the president. Although classroom teachers, administrators, and the education community agree that the current K−12 education statute doesn’t work, and progress on a comprehensive rewrite is encouraging, it is difficult to see a new law in the near future, given the discrepancies between the House proposal and the Improving America’s Schools Act (S 1094) that was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee last month. Ultimately, reconciling the two proposals will be quite a feat.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What are the House bill and debate all about? The legislation takes a big step back from current accountability requirements that are arguably at the heart of current law, but it still doesn't go far enough for some conservative members of the House, who would like to eliminate the Department of Education and the federal role in K−12 education altogether. And, of course, the retreat from accountability that Republicans like is exactly what has many Democrats opposing the bill, because of the potential results for some of the country’s most vulnerable children. These issues make for odd alliances, since business organizations, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agree with the teacher unions and Democrats on this issue—a rare occurrence, for sure.

In the days before the debate, a host of amendments were cleared for debate—26 of them. They included one from Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, to allow Title I money to follow students to any public school of their choice, including charter schools. A proposal from Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) would reinstate the so-called one percent cap that the bill eliminated on alternative assessments for students with disabilities. These are big issues that drew heated debate. A vote was also held on a “sense of the Congress” amendment written by Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.), who takes issue with what he regards as a coercive use of the Race to the Top program by the U.S. Department of Education  to compel states to adopt the Common Core State Standards. In addition, a proposal from Representative Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) would allow states to opt out of ESEA accountability measures if they return the associated federal money to taxpayers, and a proposal from Representative Rob Bishop (R-Utah), a former teacher, aimed to clarify that there would be no federal mandate on teacher evaluations. There were other big issues considered in the days before the debate, including the Title I formula and its fairness and testing requirements in the bill. All of these issues reflected and provoked partisan tensions.

Just after the committee approved the bill in June, NCTM conveyed its disappointment that the bill would eliminate the only STEM-specific program at the Department of Education, but the Council also expressed relief that the troublesome AYP calculation would be eliminated. The many provisions of the bill make it difficult to strongly support or oppose all of them, and NCTM will continue to share its views with Congress as this process moves forward. Now that the House has passed the bill, eyes turn to the Senate and closely watch its plans to debate their bill in the fall—when the current heat wave that beats down on Washington and Congress is long gone.  

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC

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