7/9/15 10:02 AM EDT :: House Republicans eked out a victory on their rewrite of No Child Left Behind on Wednesday night, after months of uncertainty on whether the bill, the Student Success Act, would get a vote in the chamber. It was the second time this year that the House considered the bill. On both occasions, House leaders struggled to find a way to move the legislation without losing too many conservative and moderate votes. The House ultimately voted down an amendment that would’ve allowed states to opt out of the law while still receiving federal money. That amendment, known as A-PLUS, was important to many conservatives, including Heritage Action. A total of 49 Republicans voted against [http://1.usa.gov/1dN5FnQ] the A-PLUS proposal. Another amendment that would allow schools to avoid counting students who opt out of standardized tests in their participation rates passed — and even had some Democratic support [http://1.usa.gov/1HgLSYA].
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House leaders muster passage of education bill
7/8/15 9:59 AM EDT
Updated 7/8/15 8:27 PM EDT :: House Republican leaders eked out a victory Wednesday on a partisan bill to update President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law that would give far more control over public education to states.
This was the second time the House considered the Student Success Act on the chamber’s floor this year. On both occasions, House leaders struggled to find a way ahead for the bill within their party without it losing too many votes from the left and the right.
The House bill would streamline federal education programs and includes language that would allow Title I dollars to follow students to public schools of their choice — a deal-breaker for Democrats.
Now the focus shifts to the Senate floor, where debate started this week on a separate bill to update the comprehensive education law in a much different way: via a bipartisan bill molded by Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee, and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray. The Senate bill takes a more moderate tack and includes some Democratic priorities, such as modest expansions to pre-K.
But both chambers’ bills would roll back the strong federal role in education established by NCLB, though Democrats hope to nudge the Senate bill to the left on the floor and later in conference.
“For too long, Washington’s priorities have outweighed what parents, teachers, and local leaders know is best for their children. Today, we took an important step in a bold, new direction,” House education committee Chairman John Kline said. “After years of working with education stakeholders and members of Congress, I’m pleased the House has advanced responsible reforms that would give the American people what they deserve: a commonsense law that will help every child in every school receive an excellent education.”
The 218 to 213 vote in the House reflects the deep schism over education policy in the chamber — and the country.
In February, in an embarrassment to House GOP leaders, the bill was abruptly pulled from the floor amid backlash from the conservative arm of the party that left it too many votes short of passage. And conservatives — bolstered by aggressive lobbying from Heritage Action and the Club for Growth — wanted provisions included in the bill that would allow states to opt out of the law and still receive federal tax dollars. They also wanted another provision that would allow federal Title I money — intended to improve education for students from low-income families — to follow students from traditional public schools to charter and private schools. They did not get iterations of these provisions in the bill this week.
Democrats also were unhappy with the bill. President Barack Obama issued a veto threat, and there was widespread opposition from Democrats who said the bill abdicated the federal government’s responsibility to protect poor, minority, disabled and non-English-speaking students.
“This is a bad bill,” House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member Bobby Scott said. “The funding formula takes from the poor and gives to the rich.”
The House, which in past Congresses had passed partisan versions of an NCLB rewrite, revisited the measure at the same time the Senate debates its own iteration of NCLB, the Every Child Achieves Act. The Senate, too, is debating the law this week — for the first time since 2001.
The Senate bill is being spearheaded by Alexander, but it was negotiated with HELP Committee Democrats and received a unanimous vote in committee, a starkly different approach from the House.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan. | Getty
“It’s bipartisan legislation drafted by a Republican former education secretary, Sen. Alexander, and a Democratic former preschool teacher, Sen. [Patty] Murray,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “Just think about it: From third rail to unanimous bipartisan support — now that’s an impressive achievement.”
In the House, securing support from the rank-and-file was a bigger challenge for leadership.
Members of Scalise’s vote-counting team scoured the floor Tuesday night, looking to lock up support and persuade wary lawmakers to go along with the bill.
The fate of the bill depended largely on three amendments. The most important amendment the House considered Wednesday — known as A-PLUS — was originally crafted by The Heritage Foundation and became a rallying cry for conservatives during the February debate. It would allow states to ignore the law’s provisions while still receiving billions in federal funds. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the amendment’s sponsor, said it “goes beyond just the in-the-court-of-public-opinion or fancy PR move” with its sweeping changes.
“We have a real opportunity with the Student Success Act to change Washington’s top-down, one-size-all approach to education, but I believe we can truly restore local control of education and have introduced the A-PLUS amendment to the bill,” Walker said.
The House also approved measures that would shorten the authorization of the bill. Another amendment adopted would allow students to skip standardized tests without the exempted students having an effect on required participation rates for annual assessments. Some moderates who opposed the bill in states such as union-heavy New York — where a political movement has built up around encouraging students to opt out of tests with the support of teacher’s unions — supported the measure. Some Democrats, too, supported the measure, despite Scott urging them strongly to vote against it.
No Child Left Behind left a high watermark for federal involvement in education when it passed in 2001, with Boehner’s help working as the House’s education committee leader. Ever since, distaste for the law has been building from the GOP and many Democrats.
The acrimony surrounding the latest rewrite attempt reflects how different the Republican Party is 15 years later — especially on education. Kline and others have spoken repeatedly with conservatives about their bill, trying to sell its emphasis on local control and blocking the federal government from getting involved with the Common Core standards — or anything like them — in the future.
“In this environment, given how much frustration there is with the president and the administration, you don’t have a lot of trust on the right,” said Frederick Hess, director at the American Enterprise Institute.
The House’s bill would take big steps to beef up local control in education. It would reduce the education secretary’s power and streamline federal education programs. And it would allow education funding to follow students to public schools of their choice, a measure that’s strongly opposed by the Obama administration but strongly supported by many Republicans. The Senate bill, too, would cut the federal footprint.
The Obama administration has been in frequent talks with Capitol Hill leaders on both the House and the Senate’s proposed rewrites of No Child Left Behind. But the White House was clear it would veto the House’s bill in February, long before it was certain the new round of conservative amendments would be offered.
“The House has obviously been a mess,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last week. “They have a bill that has no Democratic support. That’s about politics, that’s not about policy — they couldn’t even get their own members to sign on to that bill.”
— The scene on the House floor: After leadership worked furiously to whip votes for the bill, onlookers expected it to pass when it came up for a vote. But when the clock ran out, the Student Success Act’s backers were still short a handful of votes in order to pass it, with the “Nays” up by four. Democrats began taunting them from across the aisle as lawmakers hustled to get the vote count up to the point where it would clear the chamber, which it eventually did by a vote of 218-213.
— The Senate now continues debate on its bill to update the law. Unlike the partisan tone struck by the House, debate Wednesday night in the Senate ended on a positive note, with HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander praising the bipartisan effort. “There’s a consensus that runs through this debate and it runs through on the Democratic side as well,” Alexander said.
— Alexander’s praise came even though the Senate voted down his amendment that would have allowed existing federal dollars to follow millions of low-income children to a public or private school.
— One contentious issue to watch: a possible amendment from Republican Sen. Richard Burr that would change the Title I funding formula. Senators including Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski have made clear that they won’t support such a change because it could reduce funding in their state.
— A note on timing: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday he’s anticipating a vote on final passage early next week.