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Education bill to include amendment sponsored by Manchin, Toomey

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Education bill to include amendment sponsored by Manchin, Toomey
By Tracie Mauriello, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON — Standardized tests, states’ rights, passing the trash and early childhood education are all in the mix as Congress wrestles with an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The name of the proposed substitute — Every Child Achieves — underscores the unpopularity of the signature legislation of President George W. Bush. Conservatives dislike it because of its national scope and standards. Liberals criticize it as a measure that punished poor school districts. Many teachers and administrators felt it put too much emphasis on standardized testing.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., sponsored a Senate bill under consideration. It would retain NCLB’s standardized testing requirements but allow states to decide what to test and how much weight to give the exams when assessing school achievement.

The House early Thursday morning passed its own version of the legislation, with more inroads into federal standards and control.

The Senate is expected to vote next week on the underlying bill.

Ms. Murray said she would like stronger measures in the bill that would require states to identify their lowest-performing schools and require those schools to have plans for improvement.

“When we don’t hold our schools and states accountable for educating every child, it is the kids from our low-income backgrounds, kids with disabilities, kids who are learning English and kids of color who too often do fall through the cracks,” Ms. Murray said earlier this week.

The White House has urged additional revisions on school accountability. “Parents, families and communities deserve to know that when children fall behind, their schools will take action to improve,” it said in a statement.

If the Senate passes its version, the bills will go to conference committee to iron out differences to create identical bills that will go back to each chamber for a vote.

On Thursday, the Senate continued to work on the bill and agreed to consider an amendment sponsored by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that would seek to protect children from sexual predators in their schools. The amendment would forbid school administrators from knowingly recommending a suspected child abuser for a job in another district.

In a 98-0 vote, the Senate agreed to incorporate the bipartisan duo’s legislation into the sweeping education overhaul bill.

“ ‘Passing the trash’ is all too common a practice as a way for schools to make these predators someone else’s problem,” Mr. Toomey said in a floor speech Thursday morning.

Several states already have similar laws, but that hasn’t solved the problem, Mr. Toomey said.

“No state can force another state to forbid this practice of [sending a predator] across state lines into their state. That’s why this always needed a federal response,” Mr. Toomey said.

“We know we have a problem because every year we arrest hundreds of school employees across the country for sexual abuse of children who are supposed to be in their care,” he said.

Mr. Lamar and Ms. Murray both supported the measure.

“I think this amendment gets at a real problem with ensuring that suspected abusers do not transfer to other states and districts. It’s a positive step,” Ms. Murray said before the vote.

Mr. Toomey and Mr. Manchin failed to get enough support for another measure, which would have prescribed more stringent background checks for school personnel.

Mr. Toomey said he isn’t giving up that fight, but conceded for now in order to move forward where there was agreement.

The House-passed version includes a pass-the-trash prohibition, increasing the likelihood that the provision will wind up in the conference committee report. It also includes provisions for the kind of background checks advocated by Mr. Toomey and Mr. Manchin. The two measures were shepherded through the House by U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks.

Meanwhile, Mr. Toomey’s Democratic counterpart is trying to get his own amendment to the floor.

Sen. Bob Casey’s amendment would fund public and private pre-kindergarten programs for children whose parents earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s $48,500 for a family of four or $40,200 for a family of three, for example.

The program would cost $30 billion over five years and would serve about 3 million children, Mr. Casey said.

The funds would go to states, which would distribute the money as grants to public and private providers who used evidence-based programs, small class sizes and qualified teachers who are paid comparably to elementary school teachers, Mr. Casey said.

He wants to pay for it by closing a tax-inversion loophole that allows U.S. companies to avoid taxes by moving part of their operations overseas and claiming they are foreign corporations.

Republicans, who control both legislative chambers, are unlikely to agree. They have repeatedly said they would consider closing the tax-inversion loophole only as part of a broad tax-overhaul plan.

Mr. Casey is working to persuade Republicans that expanding pre-kindergarten fits with their pro-growth agenda.