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July 10, 2015

Education: Debating the Scope of Federal Control

Congress works on the Student Success Act.

Technically it’s been dead since a Democrat Congress failed to reauthorize it in 2007, but the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been a useful whipping boy for the Obama administration and Democrats ever since it replaced the old Great Society-era Elementary and Secondary School Act in 2001. An attempt to revamp it two years ago failed in Harry Reid’s Senate.

With the GOP takeover of Congress last year, conservatives were convinced that reforms were finally possible. Adding to their concerns was the Obama administration’s use of federal funding to bribe states to adopt unpopular Common Core standards as well as other federal encroachments on what used to be exclusively a state and local issue.

But as with most of the highly sought agenda items on the conservative platform, getting rid of the waste and duplicity within the Department of Education has run into roadblocks from both sides of the aisle.

While the House version, called the Student Success Act, is somewhat better than its NCLB predecessor, it still falls well short of the goals conservatives set. Explains Rep. John Kline (R-MN), who heads the House Committee on Education and the Workforce: “If we expect to really get rid of No Child Left Behind, that means what we pass has to be signed into law, and that means it has to be bipartisan.” However, the House bill won by a narrow 218-213 margin with nary a Democrat vote. Several more conservative amendments failed to make it into the House bill, leading some Republicans to reject the package.

On the Senate side, though, the NCLB re-authorization bill — which doesn’t have a fancy name — has what education unions term “a lot of things going for it.” As a stricter re-authorization, it better maintains the status quo — although it’s certain that Democrats will demonize the legislation should it miraculously win approval from the House. Barack Obama has already pledged a veto of either bill unless accountability standards for failing schools are enhanced.

Again, though, Republicans seem to have the impression that they must do something, lest they be accused of doing nothing. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) declared, “We want the president’s signature. We want to fix No Child Left Behind, not just make a political statement.” Alexander chairs the Senate committee working on the bill and is negotiating with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) on something both sides can support. Getting the Democrats on board means discarding common-sense reforms, like allowing states more latitude in setting standards and granting Title I funding portability, which would allow low-income parents more choice in which public or charter school their child can attend. Murray deemed the latter provision a “non-starter.”

With both bills facing an uncertain future, it seems the status quo will continue for at least another two years. And while several GOP presidential candidates have vowed to dismantle the Department of Education — which hasn’t educated a single child since its inception in 1980 under Jimmy Carter — the process won’t occur unless Republicans secure a filibuster-proof Senate majority.

No one said returning the federal government to its constitutionally authorized role in education — which is to say no role whatsoever — is going to be easy. But it’s a worthwhile endeavor, and one that really is for the children.

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