The Senate on Wednesday approved a sweeping revision of the contentious No Child Left Behind law, sending to President Barack Obama’s desk a proposal that ends an era of federal control in education policy after 14 years.
The legislation, which passed the Senate by a vote of 85-12, would restore authority for school performance and accountability to local districts and states after a lengthy period of aggressive federal involvement. While it keeps the existing annual testing requirements in reading and math and requires that states act to improve the lowest performing schools, it allows more local control to set goals, determine school ratings and decide remedial measures.
“It will unleash a flood of excitement and innovation and student achievement that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who leads the Education Committee. “But it will come community by community, state by state, rather than through Washington, D.C.”
Obama is expected to sign the bill, the product of a conference committee of the House and Senate, which passed easily in the House last week with bipartisan backing.
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“This is the biggest rewrite of our education laws in 25 years,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan. “I’m very proud of this bill.”
No Child Left Behind, George W. Bush’s signature education initiative, passed with strong bipartisan support in 2001. It introduced high-stakes standardized testing to gauge students in reading and math from the third to eighth grades, with the ultimate goal of making every student proficient in those subjects by 2014.
But as time went on, more schools faced sanctions, including closings, as they failed to meet what turned out to be an unworkable expectation. Republicans and Democrats alike backed away from the law as it became apparent that its penalties for struggling schools were overly punitive.
The law expired in 2007, but for years lawmakers could not agree on a replacement. Members of Congress debated the role the federal government should play in education, with Republicans pushing for more autonomy for states and school districts. For their part, Democrats pressed for assurances that racial minorities and those from low-income families would be protected, ensuring that there would not be disparities in access to a good education from one state or district to the next.
“I think the most important thing that we put in place is that we have federal guardrails to make sure that all of our students are getting access to a quality education, but have reduced the emphasis on high-stakes testing that has been so paralyzing,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the Education Committee’s top Democrat, said in an interview this week.
In January, Murray, a former preschool teacher, and Alexander, a former university president and education secretary, agreed to work together on a new proposal, kick-starting the negotiations that culminated in the legislation passed by the Senate on Wednesday.
Lawmakers praised the cooperation that finally ended the gridlock over the bill, part of what Alexander called “one of the most productive Senate years in a long time,” citing bipartisan efforts on cybersecurity and highway infrastructure as well.
“It’s important to say that while this was done because we have a Republican majority, it would not have happened without Democratic senators, especially Senator Murray,” he said.
Educators, advocates and teachers’ unions welcomed the end of years of stalled negotiations.
“It’s a big deal because it’s being done in a place in Washington that doesn’t normally get anything done,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union with about 3 million members, said that the easing of No Child Left Behind’s most onerous measures could help schools keep teachers on the job.
“One of the reasons they have been leaving the classroom is that they are so disillusioned by test and punish,” Garcia said. With the new flexibility that the law gives to states and local school districts, Garcia said, policymakers and administrators have the chance to “take a look at making this a respected profession where teachers are allowed to make decisions that they know are in the best interest of students.”