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Congress Begins Conference on No Child Left Behind Rewrite

On Wednesday, a congressional conference committee kicked off the effort to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—amid the concerns of many conservative parents, who would prefer to see education taken out of the hands of the federal government and back into those of the individual states and local school districts.

Those conservative parents expressed their opposition vehemently over the summer, leading to the House only barely approving its version of ESEA in July. The Senate—with fewer conservative members—overwhelmingly approved its model in bipartisan fashion, much to the delight of Senate education committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander.

The chairman of the conference committee Rep. John Kline said in a statement Wednesday:

The American people have waited long enough for Congress to do its job and replace No Child Left Behind. Fortunately, both the House and Senate have finally passed proposals intended to do just that. Now it is up to us to resolve the differences between those two proposals and work to send a final bill to the president’s desk.

As Education Week reported Tuesday, Alexander, who worked with ranking member of the Senate education committee Sen. Patty Murray on the ESEA reauthorization, said, “This agreement, in my opinion, is the most significant step towards local control in 25 years.”

Murray, however, said the new ESEA framework includes “strong federal guardrails… so that students don’t get left behind.”

The difference between the two statements on the same bill has many conservative parents worried, and their concerns were heightened once again when it was discovered some “compromises” were made between House and Senate leaders prior to the first meeting of the conference committee.

In fact, Sen. Mike Lee, reports Education Week, took to the floor of the Senate last week to complain about the ESEA process, asserting the measure was already a done deal.

For his part, Alexander said a vote against his bill is a vote to continue “the Common Core standards, the national school board, and the waivers in 42 states.”

The current proposal would keep NCLB’s required annual testing in grades 3 through 8, and once again in high school—though states reportedly will decide how much the tests count toward accountability.

While the measure allows states to work out their own opt-out laws, it still continues the 95 percent participation mandate, leaving states and school districts to take up the opt-out issue.

Physical education, some math and science programs, and Advanced Placement (owned by the College Board) would be block granted to the states in the proposal.

A big win for the left in the measure is that early childhood education will now be included under the federal education umbrella—whereas previously ESEA covered K-12 education. The early childhood program will be jointly administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education—a move that would mean much tighter federal control of early childhood education, i.e., mandates.

Additionally, the measure does not allow Title I portability or permitting the federal funding to “follow the child” to the school of choice.

Heritage Action largely gives a thumbs-down to the proposed bill and reports the following:

Although the agreement apparently consolidates some programs, it is likely the grants will require detailed reporting and assurances that states will comply with federal mandates. What’s more, the indexing of current funding levels to inflation reveals the lack of genuine program eliminations. Additionally, Senate Democrats were able to secure their new pre-kindergarten program, which will be jointly administered by the Department of Health and Human Services and Education Department. Initial funding is reported to be about $250 million per year.

To give an idea of who is approving of the measure, below is a sampling of comments:

Education Week reports that Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers—one of the owners of the copyright to the Common Core standards—said in a statement. “This progress is critical to creating a long-term, stable federal policy that gives states additional flexibility, while at the same time holding us accountable for results.”

The other Common Core copyright owner—the National Governors Association—also supports the ESEA rewrite.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a letter, “I urge you to arrive at and approve an ESEA conference report for consideration and a vote by both chambers as soon as possible.”

“We need a law that will eliminate the current test-and-punish policies, drive funds to public schools educating large populations of disadvantaged students, and avoid divisive programs like vouchers and portability,” she added.

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