House education bill good first step toward fixing problems

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., right, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., second from right, have shephered the Senate version of the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law.

The United States House of Representatives took the first step Wednesday in wresting away some federal control over education policy and returning it to states and local school districts where it belongs.

The House voted mostly along party lines for the bill, which rewrites the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. The Senate currently is debating its version of the bill, which, if passed, would be considered again in a joint Senate-House conference committee.

The actual law, including a reauthorization of the older Elementary and Secondary Education Act and covering 4 percent of the nation's education dollars, expired in 2007. The Democrat-controlled Congress and then divided Congresses have not passed laws to extend it since. The bills in the Republican-controlled Congress now offer the best opportunity to reauthorize the law and change it, something both sides agree needs to be done.

The most important aspects of the bill, included in both Senate and House versions, would keep the annual reading and math tests that were a staple of the original law but would let states determine how best to use the results of the tests to measure school and teacher performance. The bills also would allow each state to determine its own set of high standards, whether it be the widely disliked Common Core or something else.

The bipartisan Senate bill, which passed out of the education committee unanimously in April, also would prevent any secretary of education from using waivers to mandate additional requirements for states or school districts (as the Obama administration did with Common Core), and would help states expand their best charter schools, evaluate their teachers, fix the lowest-performing schools and address the fragmentation of early childhood education programs (but wouldn't mandate how states had to do them).

The House version also allows public funds to follow some 11 million low-income students from one school to another if their parents so choose, while a slightly different portability amendment to the Senate bill sponsored by education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., failed to pass Wednesday.

Nearly all Democrats are against portability measures, preferring the money remain in low-performing schools. They say they believe the schools eventually will improve, but in the meantime it deprives low-income students of a better opportunity.

Alexander and other true education supporters believe this may be the best chance to pass a reauthorization until the next president is elected, so assuming the Senate bill passes, look for a true bipartisan bill to emerge in the conference committee. It may not be everything conservatives would want, but it will definitely take a good bit of education policymaking out of Washington and move it closer to the students it affects.