WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Thursday to roll back significant parts of the much-criticized No Child Left Behind law, keeping the annual testing requirement but reducing the federal role in education.
The 81-17 vote comes a week after the House passed its own rewrite and sets the stage for what could be contentious negotiations over the federal government’s influence in education policy.
The Senate version would leave in place the law’s annual testing schedule. But, in a major shift, it would give states and districts more control over whether and how to use those tests to assess the performance of schools, teachers and students.
The legislation, sponsored by Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, would prohibit the federal government from requiring or encouraging specific sets of academic standards, such as Common Core.
Drafted by the states with the support of the Obama administration, the Common Core standards have become a rallying point for those who want a smaller federal role in education.
Alexander called Senate passage “a big step forward” and said the goal now was reach a compromise with the House and send a final bill to President Barack Obama. The White House has threatened a veto of the House plan.
The House legislation, sponsored by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., also lessens federal involvement. It turns over power to the states to assess school performance and prevents the Department of Education from pushing Common Core or other standards on schools.
But unlike the Senate bill, the House version allows federal money to follow low-income children to public schools of their choice, an issue known as portability. Democrats do not support it, and the Senate voted down the idea last week.
Senators earlier Thursday rejected a series of amendments, including one from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a GOP presidential candidate, that would have eliminated federal testing mandates and given states more say in how students are assessed.
Also defeated was a proposal championed by Democrats that would have expanded pre-K programs for children of low-and-moderate income families.
No Child Left Behind had bipartisan support and was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. It mandated annual testing in reading and math for students in grades three through eight and again in high school. Schools had to show student growth or face consequences such as cuts in funding.
Critics complain there is too much testing and the law is too punitive on schools deemed to be failing.
Congress has tried to update the law since it expired in 2007, though its mandates remained in place. The Obama administration began issuing waivers to states to get around some of the law’s strictest requirements when it became clear they would not be met.