Republicans, Democrats Looking for Common Ground on ESEA

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The job of revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the latest version of which is called No Child Left Behind, has caused tension between the parties in the House of Respresentatives. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the ranking member of the committee on Education and the Workforce, sent a request to Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) to begin hearings on the matter, according to Lyndsey Layton, writing for The Washington Post. There was no response from Kline, but Kline filed a new bill last week almost identical to the legislation passed by House Republicans in 2013. Scott, along with other Democrats, held a hearing, which they called a “forum”, with attendant witnesses.

“There is broad agreement that No Child Left Behind is outdated,” Scott said in a statement. “But rather than building upon the advancements we’ve made since the last ESEA rewrite, the Republican [bill] would turn back the clock on our public education system.”

Kline says the federal government should not be in the business of telling schools how to spend their money. Instead, he has said, parents and education leaders should be empowered so that every child in every school will receive a good education. Kline’s bill differs from Alexander’s draft in that it would keep the federal requirement that public schools test all students in math and reading in grades 3 and 8 and once in high school.

Wade Henderson, chief executive of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, says:

“As a whole, the bill would thrust us back to an earlier time when states could choose to ignore the needs of children of color, low-income students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities,” Henderson wrote. “The results, for these groups of students and for our nation as a whole, were devastating then, and would be devastating now.”

The Republicans want what is known as “Title I portability.” This addition would allow poor students to transfer from a low-income public school to a more affluent one and have the federal dollars allotted to the student follow the student to the new public school.

Democrats, teachers unions, and civil rights groups are opposed. They say that portability will weaken the program’s ability to remove the burden of poverty on children.

Two days later, the Senate education panel reported that it was making efforts to rewrite the federal education law, and the top Democrat on the panel had gotten the support of the Republican chairman of the panel to start completely over to design a bill that is, according to both sides, a bipartisan plan. Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has released a Republican draft bill and has held talks and hearings on the aspects of the complex piece of legislation. The bill explains how the federal government interacts with the 100,000 K-12 public schools in the US.

The law in effect at this time, No Child Left Behind, was to be reauthorized in 2007, but efforts to do so were never successful. Almost everyone involved in the education community agrees that the law is out-of-date and is not working. The sticking point, however, has to do with the degree to which the federal government should be involved in education.

The ranking Democrat on the panel, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), and Alexander say they are focused on finding common ground upon which to draft a new law that will receive bipartisan support. In spite of this determination, Murray believes that Alexander is pushing his GOP bill through the committee aggressively in order to bring it to the Senate floor by early March. But, after lengthy discussion the two agreed that the GOP proposal would be put aside and and the bill would be written in a bipartisan manner, which will, in all likelihood, extend the timetable for a Senate vote.

“We’ve agreed to move forward to develop a bipartisan chairman’s mark to fix No Child Left Behind,” Alexander and Murray said in a joint statement. “Our staffs will begin working today with each other and with the staffs of other senators on the committee. We know our constituents expect us to fix this broken law and improve education for students, families, and communities across the country — and we expect to succeed.”

Common Core standards, school choice, and annual testing requirements are all important elements in the heated debating among lawmakers. Some members of the Republican party, writes Kimberly Hefling for Associated Press, would like to eliminate federal involvement in education. Democrats have criticized the administrations education policies because of the increase and emphasis on testing, and common ground appears difficult to find.

On testing, Alexander has said he would hear both sides of the discussion and Murray says she supports the continuation of the testing mandate. At a school choice event last week, Alexander said that he expects to see amendments to the bill related to issues like the Common Core standards and vouchers for the use of public money for private tuition.