WASHINGTON - House Republicans on Friday passed legislation outlining their vision for national educational policy to replace the No Child Left Behind law. The measure would give state and local governments greater powers to determine how best to improve schools and would sharply reduce federal involvement in education matters.
The Student Success Act reflects the long-held Republican premise that Washington has no business determining how local school systems are run.
The measure drew strong criticism and a veto threat from the White House, which said the bill "would represent a significant step backwards" in the effort to prepare children for the future. The partisan divide came despite general agreement that the No Child Left Behind law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 and expired since 2007, needs a thorough overhaul.
The vote was 221-207, with no Democrats supporting it and 12 Republicans voting against it.
The House bill has no chance of moving through the Democratic-led Senate as it is written. The Senate committee overseeing education has completed work on its own measure that would give states greater flexibility in writing their own plans to improve schools. But, unlike the GOP proposal, that bill would allow the education secretary to retain approval power over those proposals. Full Senate consideration of the measure is unlikely to happen before the fall.
The House bill would eliminate No Child Left Behind's testing and teacher evaluation systems, instead giving states and local school districts responsibility for setting up methods for measuring student learning.
"This legislation will restore local control, empower parents, eliminate unnecessary Washington red tape and intrusion in schools and support innovation and excellence in the classroom," said Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn.
The 2002 law was a bipartisan product of, among others, current House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
It required that all students be able to read and do math at grade level by 2014. But the Obama administration, in a tacit acknowledgement that the goal was unattainable, last year began offering waivers to states that came up with their own federally approved plans to prepare children for college and careers and measure student and teacher performance. To date, 39 states and the District of Columbia have been granted waivers.
President Barack Obama said he was forced to act because Congress had failed to update the law despite widespread bipartisan agreement that it had to be fixed. Republicans charged that he was using the waivers to bypass Congress.
The law had been blamed for many of the problems in American schools, including that teachers were "teaching to the test" and that standardized tests should not be the only measure of student performance.
Democrats denounced the latest Republican approach to fixing the problem.
"This bill guts funding for public education, abdicates the federal government's responsibility to ensure every child has an equal opportunity to a quality education, and it walks away from our duty to hold school systems accountable," said Rep. George Miller of California, top Democrat on the education committee and a partner with Boehner and Kennedy in writing the No Child Left Behind law.
The White House, in its veto threat, said the bill "would not support state efforts to hold students to standards that will prepare them for college and careers, would not support our international economic competitiveness (and) would virtually eliminate accountability for the growth and achievement of historically underserved populations."
Democrats claimed the bill could also allow states to establish separate and unequal tracks for students with disabilities.
The bill would eliminate the law's adequate yearly progress metric and let states develop accountability systems. It would get rid of federally mandated actions against poorly performing schools, again letting states and local governments determine improvement strategies. States and school systems would be directed to develop their own teacher-evaluation systems.
It would eliminate more than 70 existing elementary and secondary education programs, replacing them with block grant money that states and school districts could use as they think best.
It would also bar the education secretary from imposing conditions on states in exchange for waivers of federal law and encouraging states to implement national achievement standards known as the common core. The expansion of high-quality charter schools would be encouraged, and parents would be given more choices in picking schools that meet their needs.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., won support of an amendment that gives parents greater choice in deciding where their children go to school by stating that federal money should follow the students who change schools.
But the House rejected, on a 233-193 vote, a proposal by Miller to substitute a Democratic alternative for the bill. Miller's legislation would also eliminate the adequate yearly progress tests. But states would still be required to establish accountability systems that set performance, growth, and graduation targets. It gives states flexibility to judge the performance of schools using multiple measures in addition to student test scores.