WASHINGTON (AP) — The good intentions of No Child Left Behind have not yielded good policy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate education panel said Tuesday as lawmakers began to rewrite the sweeping legislation that governs all schools that receive federal tax dollars.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, opened hearings on the 2001 education law by promising to scrap unworkable parts of that education law and give states more authority to decide how to teach students and to identify failing schools. His Republican counterpart, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, was equally as critical of No Child Left Behind but said Democrats' suggested replacement was little more than an effort to turn the U.S. Department of Education into a "national school board."
The committee members appeared deeply divided along partisan lines. A Republican alternative bill failed against unified Democrats, who control the panel, and GOP lawmakers continued to offer amendments that would strip the underlying Democratic bill.
"Sen. Harkin's bill is No Child Left Behind on steroids," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. "This is absolutely the wrong direction." The No Child Left Behind education law was implemented in 2001 with bipartisan support from President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The law imposed ambitious accountability standards, such as requiring all students to perform at grade level in math and reading by 2014.
Yet the law expired in 2007 and its standards now are seen as overly ambitious. Congress has failed to agree on a plan to update it. Absent legislative action, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has given 37 states and the District of Columbia permission to ignore parts of the law in exchange for detailed plans to hold schools accountable. The system has led to state-by-state decisions about whether schools were improving and critics say the process has given Duncan inordinate amounts of power.
"If you remember the childhood game 'Mother, May I?" then you'll have a pretty good sense of how the process works today: states must come to Washington for approval of their plans to educate 50 million children in 100,000 public schools," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, who served as President George H.W. Bush's education secretary.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee quickly dismissed Republicans' wholesale rewrite. It was a departure from an earlier bipartisan bill that made it out of the education committee but never received a full vote in the Senate.
This time, each party introduced competing versions of the legislation. Democrats were likely to prevail in committee with a bill they called the Strengthening America's Schools Act. Leaders in the Democratic-led Senate have not scheduled a vote on the bill in the full Senate. Aides suggested it could be autumn before it came before the full Senate, if then.
The partisan divide over the proposals reflected the broader differences. Alexander, sparring with Harkin, said the Democrats' bill was more focused on expanding Washington's reach than improving schools.
"The last thing we need in Tennessee is someone in Washington looking over our shoulder," Alexander said. Harkin shot back: "This is not the heavy hand of the federal government telling you what to do."
Harkin said Washington had a duty to its students. "The essential role of the federal government is to ensure all Americans, regardless of race, gender, national origin, religion and disability have the same equal opportunity to a good education," Harkin said.
Harkin's 1,150-page proposal would scrap the one-sized-fits-all national requirements of No Child Left Behind and give way to standards that states write for themselves. Duncan or his successors as education secretary would have to approve those plans — oversight that Republicans called overbearing.
Students would still be tested in reading and math each year from third to eighth grades, as well as once in high school. Schools would also have to measure students' aptitude in science at least three times between third grade and graduation.
But those tests could be combined with student portfolios or projects, an effort to win over the law's critics who said too much emphasis was placed on testing. No Child Left Behind, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, governs all schools that receive federal dollars for poor, minority, disabled and students whose primary language is not English. The latest version of the law eliminates 20 programs while encouraging states to expand art, physical education and pre-kindergarten programs.
Harkin said states could ignore the law if they don't want federal dollars. "No state has to do anything. They don't have to do one single thing," he said. "It seems to me that we should have a say in how that money is used," he added.
House Republicans, meanwhile, have introduced their own rewrite of the law and were set to begin hearings next week.
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