Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is the incoming chairman of the Senate committee overseeing education, says his top education priority is fixing the landmark Bush-era law. His goal? Get a bill signed by President Barack Obama early next year.
Doing so will require bipartisanship that's been elusive since the law, primarily designed to help minority and poor children, came up for renewal in 2007.
The law requires schools to show annual growth in student achievement or face consequences, with all students expected to be proficient in reading and math this year. It has been credited with shining a light on how schools handle minority, low-income, English learners and special needs students, but led to complaints that teachers were teaching to standardized tests and that mandates were unrealistic and penalties ineffective.
Obama since 2012 has allowed states to get a waiver from some of the more stringent requirements of the law, but they had to agree to requirements such as adopting college and career ready standards — like Common Core — and implementing teacher evaluation systems with teeth. More than 40 states have a waiver.
The waivers left alone a federal requirement of annual standardized testing in grades three to eight and testing once in high school. The testing provisions are likely to be part of the debate.
Alexander, a pragmatic lawmaker, is no stranger to education policy. He served as education secretary under George H.W. Bush, as president of the University of Tennessee and as Tennessee governor.
He says that "excessive regulation of local schools by Washington is getting in the way of better schools." He and House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., say the federal government needs to get out of the business of deciding what to do about low-performing schools, education standards and teacher evaluations.
But, Alexander has also acknowledged the political reality — even if Congress passes a bill, Obama would need to sign it to become law.
"We'll work with Secretary Duncan and the president in hopes we can persuade them that what we want to do is also what they want to do," Alexander said, referring to Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan.
Recent history shows just how difficult that can be.
In 2013, a bill to update No Child Left Behind backed by Kline passed the full House with no Democratic support. The Senate Education Committee, led by Democrats, passed a bill the same year with no Republicans on board. It would have put more control in the hands of states but would have given the federal education secretary more leverage than Kline's plan.
Alexander also put forward his own bill last year. Like Kline's bill, it wouldn't have rolled back the annual testing requirement under No Child Left Behind.
Both lawmakers have said they are open to making adjustments to their proposals, and Alexander has said he believes there are questions to be asked about whether all the federally mandated annual tests are appropriate and whether states should decide how to assess their students.
Obama and Duncan have shown steadfast support for annual standardized testing as a way to chart student growth and track how historically underserved groups are faring.
A push by teachers' unions to push back standardized tests and new Common Core standards and assessments rolling out in much of the country have stoked the debate, said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners.
"I think there is agreement that parents need information about their students, but where is that information coming from, and who's requiring it, is where there's a lot of debate," Hyslop said.
Alexander takes over the chairmanship as two longtime Democratic education stalwarts, California Rep. George Miller and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, retire.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a former preschool teacher, is expected to be the Senate committee's senior Democrat. She has an incentive to get a law passed because her home state lost its waiver.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., former superintendent of schools in Denver who sits on the committee, said he hopes Alexander is right that the law can soon be updated.
"It's challenging because a lot of the decisions are made at the local level, and No Child Left Behind built in some ways a huge federal incursion into what has been a state and local set of issues," Bennet said. "Figuring out how to get that calibrated correctly is going to be the tough work of the committee, and that's what we got to do."
Kline said he anticipates Obama will be faced with a choice.
"He can either join with us and replace the law, or he can fight, and I would love to hear his explanation for why he thinks it's better to be in the waiver business, which has schools, districts and states across the country confused and not knowing what the next step is," Kline said.
Roberto Rodriguez, an education official at the White House, said the waivers have long been considered a stopgap, and the administration is happy to work to update the law.
"We have a dance partner with Congress," Rodriguez said at a recent forum.
Meanwhile, the Education Department has told states they can apply for an extension to their waiver lasting to 2018 or beyond — well past when Obama leaves office.
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