WASHINGTON - House Republicans voted Friday to dismantle the troubled No Child Left Behind law for evaluating America's students and schools, saying states and local school districts rather than Washington should be setting rules for ensuring that kids are getting good educations.
The legislation would eliminate federally required testing of students, which has been controversial from the start. But the measure passed with no Democratic support and drew a veto threat from the Obama administration, which said it would be a "step backward" in efforts to better prepare children for colleges and careers and to bring improvements to low-performing schools.
Democrats in the Senate, where they hold the majority, are working on their own bill. It would also give states greater flexibility in designing school improvement standards. But it would maintain the authority of the federal education secretary to approve those plans. A Senate vote on that legislation is unlikely until autumn.
The House bill, which Republicans named the Student Success Act and Democrats dubbed the Letting Students Down Act, passed 221-207, with every Democrat, and 12 Republicans voting against it.
That partisanship comes against a background in which nearly everyone agrees that No Child Left Behind, while achieving some successes in improving achievement levels, is too inflexible and needs a major overhaul.
The law was passed by Congress in 2001, a bipartisan effort led by, among others, current House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. President George W. Bush was a strong supporter and signed it into law in early 2002.
It required that all students be able to read and do math at their actual 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 students for college and careers and to 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. Republicans charged that he was using the waivers to bypass Congress.
The law had been blamed for creating its own problems in American schools, with critics saying that teachers were now "teaching to the test" and that standardized tests were being given too much weight in measuring student performance.
House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said the proposed first revamping of education law in more than a decade was a "monumental step" that would "grant states and districts the freedom and flexibility they need to think bigger, innovate, and take whatever steps are necessary to raise the bar in our schools."
"Let's get Washington out of the way to ensure a brighter future for our children," said Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala.
Some Republicans have long contended that Washington should have no role in setting education policy and that the Education Department should be abolished. The House bill would eliminate No Child Left Behind's adequate yearly progress metric and get rid of other federal mandates required of poor-performing schools, giving states and school districts the authority to develop their own strategies for improving student and school performances.
Democrats said the legislation would lock in lower spending levels for education and would fail to hold states and schools accountable for assuring that students are learning. They said it could result in a loss of educational opportunities for low-income students, English language learners and the disabled.
"This bill is a classic example of how this Republican majority has capitulated to its more extreme elements," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the No Child law "is six years overdue for congressional reauthorization and has changed from an instrument of reform to a barrier." The country needs an education law that advances progress for all students, he said, but "the bill that the House passed today is not that law."
The White House, in its veto threat, said the bill "would not support our international economic competitiveness, would virtually eliminate accountability for the growth and achievement of historically underserved populations (and) would fail to support meaningful improvement and reforms at the nation's lowest-performing schools."
The GOP bill 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 would give parents greater choice in deciding where their children go to school by stating that federal money should follow students who change schools.
But the House rejected, on a 233-193 vote, a proposal by Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the Education Committee, to substitute a Democratic alternative for the bill. Miller's legislation would provide more education funding, maintain accountability protections for students and preserve funds set aside for disabled student groups.