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U.S. Senate to begin overhaul of No Child Left Behind

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U.S. Senate to begin overhaul of No Child Left Behind
By Tracie Mauriello, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Senate today begins debate on a sweeping overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act, which set national education standards but quickly became unpopular with teachers and parents because of its emphasis on standardized testing.

The bill would retain the examinations but allow states to decide how much weight to give them when evaluating schools. It also would prohibit the federal government from mandating national education standards, including the controversial Common Core standards. It would eliminate No Child Left Behind’s accountability standard known as “adequate yearly progress” for subgroups such as students who are poor, have special needs or are members of a minority group.

Crafted by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the bill unanimously passed through committee but is attracting criticism from many corners including teacher unions that want more relief from No Child Left Behind’s heavy emphasis on testing and civil rights groups that worry about support for poor and minority children.

“We stand very strongly in our belief that this needs to continue to be a civil rights law, and the more we see these rollbacks of protections, the more the law betrays the legacy,” said Scott Simpson, spokesman for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

He said the legislation fails to address disparities in education funding between school districts and doesn’t force states and districts to address achievement gaps for subgroups.

The Obama administration has similar concerns.

“The inequality in educational opportunities is a stain on our nation that we simply cannot accept,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters on a conference call Monday.

Thomas Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association, said local education leaders don’t need the federal government to order a solution. They already want to do whatever they can to help students achieve, and if that isn’t enough, they face public pressure when data on student achievement is released.

“That needs to be developed locally. The genius of our public education system, historically, is that there has been a lot of innovation and creativity,” Mr. Gentzel said. “We need to stimulate that kind of thinking rather than have a prescriptive approach and a one-size-fits-all mentality.”

Mr. Duncan agreed that the federal government has a role in ensuring progress.

“Transparency is an important starting point, but transparency is not the end point,” he said. “To simply label a school as failing, that doesn’t change a kid’s life.”

He said Congress needs to require action, but it can leave the details of that action up to states and local school boards.

“Every family deserves more than transparency. They deserve action,” he said. “We need a law that says we don’t have a single child to spare. We need the talents of all our children to make our nation strong.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights prefers a version of the education reauthorization that addresses those concerns. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., is expected to offer that plan this week as an amendment to the House version of the reauthorization.

Numerous amendments are expected in the Senate version, too.

Among them is a requirement for more stringent background checks of school personnel. Sponsored by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the measure has failed to gain enough traction to pass on its own or as an amendment to other bills. Mr. Toomey has pledged to use every opportunity to reintroduce it, and the Every Child Achieves Act is an obvious vehicle.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is expected to offer an amendment, too.

He wants the federal government to provide universal pre-kindergarten and fund it by closing a tax-inversion loophole that allows U.S. companies to avoid taxes by moving part of their operations overseas in order to claim they are foreign corporations.

It’s unlikely that the two chambers will emerge with identical bills, so the legislation is likely headed to a conference committee in the fall.

If Congress doesn’t act, schools will continue to operate under the provisions of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which was President George W. Bush’s signature domestic policy.

There is a growing urgency to revise and reauthorize the law because 42 states, including Pennsylvania, have received waivers exempting them from certain standards if they agree to make changes requested by the Department of Education, such as tying teacher evaluations to student test scores or providing professional development.