Lawmakers at odds over NCLB’s successor

Harkin’s proposal also includes protections from bullying for gay students.

The one-size-fits-all national requirements of No Child Left Behind would give way to standards that states write for themselves under legislation introduced by senators of both parties last week, with one key difference: The Republican version of the bill would eliminate the Education Department’s role in overseeing the standards and give governors the final say.

In stark contrast, the Democrats’ version would mirror the NCLB waiver process already in place. As of press time, 37 states have received waivers to NCLB’s requirements in exchange for customized school improvement plans.

Introduced June 4, a 1,150-page proposal from Senate education committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would require some of those states to tinker with their improvement plans and force the other remaining states to develop their own reform efforts. Education Secretary Arne Duncan still would have final say over those improvement plans, and schools still would have to measure students’ achievements.

Buried on page 694 of the legislation, Harkin’s proposal also includes protections for gay students. Schools that don’t take stern measures against bullying or discrimination against gays or lesbians would see their federal funding cut. Democrats likened the measure to Title IX, which forced schools to provide equal opportunities for female athletes under threat of penalty.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate education panel and a former education secretary himself, on June 6 rolled out the GOP’s version of NCLB renewal. Like the Democratic version, the Republican version includes provisions that let states write school improvement plans and scrap one-size-fits-all national requirements; however, it explicitly says Washington should have no role in what students learn.

(Next page: More details about the competing proposals)

In an interview with The Associated Press, Alexander said he wants to stop the federal government from deciding which schools and teachers are succeeding and which are failing. He says governors know better than education secretaries what works.

With both sides gearing up for a fight over NCLB reauthorization this summer, a separate legislative wrangle over student loans is certain to get higher priority. Interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans are set to double on July 1 without congressional action. Competing versions of legislation to avoid that hike on students were making their way through the House and Senate as of press time.

The sweeping Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known since the Bush era as NCLB, governs all schools that receive federal dollars for poor, minority, disabled, and students whose primary language is not English. Harkin’s version of the reauthorization would eliminate 20 programs while encouraging states to expand art, physical education, and pre-kindergarten programs.

In exchange for those federal dollars, schools would have to meet certain standards—previously set by Washington but increasingly dictated by state capitols.

The nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association, applauded lawmakers for taking up changes to what it called a “flawed law” but urged them not to add importance to testing.

And the American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten called Harkin’s bill “a good first step.”

“The bill requires a variety of measures to evaluate teachers, rather than making test scores the be-all and end-all,” she said.

But that does not mean schools would be off the hook for measuring students’ achievements. Students still would be tested in reading and math each year from third to eighth grades, as well as once in high school. Schools also would have to measure students’ aptitude in science at least three times between third grade and graduation.

See also:

ED considering district-by-district NCLB waivers

Viewpoint: How we should improve on NCLB

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.

The proposal also requires schools to share detailed performance reports with parents.

Duncan has pushed Congress to update the law to accommodate challenges officials did not anticipate when the measure was passed on a bipartisan basis in 2001. But absent congressional action, Duncan has been giving states permission to ignore parts of the law that are unworkable in exchange for detailed school improvement plans.

Already, 37 states and the District of Columbia have been given such waivers. Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming are still waiting to hear about their applications, along with a coalition of California districts.

In a memo circulating on Capitol Hill and among education advocates, Harkin’s Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee acknowledges criticism of NCLB’s requirements as “setting inflexible benchmarks without considering the different needs of schools and without recognizing student progress.”

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.