U.S. House Narrowly Passes ESEA Rewrite; U.S. Senate Debate Over ESEA Continues

The U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of a bill to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) yesterday evening (July 8) by a close vote of 218 to 213.

The House bill—H. R. 5, the “Student Success Act”—would streamline federal education programs and includes language that would allow Title I dollars to follow students to public schools of their choice — a deal-breaker for House Democrats. Indeed, the margin in favor of passage came entirely from Republican votes. All House Democrats and 27 House Republicans voted against the bill.

The House vote came as the Senate is debating its own rewrite of the ESEA, the current version of which is known as the “No Child Left Behind “Act.

The Senate is taking a starkly different, less partisan approach from the House. Although the Senate bill is being spearheaded by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former U.S. education secretary, it was negotiated with Democrats and received a unanimous bipartisan vote in committee.

Should the Senate bill pass, the two competing versions of reauthorization legislation will have to be reconciled through a Conference Committee process before a revised ESEA could go to the President.

Overall, the House version represents a dramatic departure from the current version of the federal K-12 education law, and would turn much of the decision-making over to states. Among the changes to current law in the House bill are that it would:

  • Eliminate the current accountability system, known as adequate yearly progress;
  • Require states to intervene in Title I schools that aren’t performing well; however, it wouldn’t tell states how to do so or how many schools to try to fix at a time;
  • Require states to come up with their own challenging academic standards in language arts, math, and science, but would prohibit the U.S. Secretary of Education from requiring states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, or any other set of standards and prohibit the Secretary of Education from putting “additional burdens” on states through the regulatory process when it comes to standards;
  • Eliminate NCLB’s “highly qualified” teacher requirements and consolidate other teacher quality programs; and
  • Include provisions that specifically underscore the role of local school board governance and oversight for school district operations that enhance student achievement and would prevent, among other inappropriate levels of federal intrusion, the issuance of regulations or non-regulatory guidance by the U.S. Department of Education without first consulting with local stakeholders and fairly addressing their concerns. 

The House bill would, however, keep in place two key features of the current law:

  • the current federal testing schedule (annually in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school); and
  • the requirement that states disaggregate student achievement data to show how students in various subgroups are doing compared to the student population as a whole.

However, an amendment adopted yesterday would allow parents to opt their children out of the testing required under the federal law and would exempt schools from including students that have opted out from the schools’ test participation requirements.

Other changes adopted yesterday during the House debate included amendments that would:

  • reduce the length of the reauthorization from six years to four years (from fiscal years 2016 through 2019);
  • clarify that states may withdraw from the Common Core State Standards or any other state standards without any penalty from the U.S. Secretary of Education;
  • express the sense of Congress that students’ personally identifiable information should be kept private and secure; and
  • create a new digital learning program for rural schools

Amendments adopted earlier this year—in February, when the bill was first debated on the House floor—included changes to:

  • allow school districts to use locally designed tests in lieu of state tests; and
  • to allow states to use federal funds to audit the number and quality of tests they use, and eliminate any deemed repetitive or of low-quality.

Note: H.R. 5 would cap funding for Title I.  It authorizes level funding for Title I for each of the fiscal years covered by the reauthorization (fiscal years 2016 through 2019)