Compromise Needed Between U.S. Senate and U.S. House to Get Rewrite of No Child Left Behind Education Law to President’s Desk

Senate approval of a bill to rewrite the landmark federal No Child Left Behind law means a Conference Committee will be convened to reconcile differences between the Senate’s version and a separate version passed by the U.S. House. It also sets the stage for what could be contentious negotiations over the federal government’s role in education policy.

Last week’s 81-17 bipartisan Senate vote in favor of passage came one week after the House passed its own rewrite with only Republicans voting in favor.  Here’s a look at the similarities and differences between the two versions:

Both the Senate and House versions of the legislation would lessen federal involvement in schools and would turn over power to the states to assess school performance. Both versions would also prevent the U.S. Department of Education from pushing Common Core or other particular sets of standards on schools.

Unlike the Senate bill, the House version would allow federal money to follow low-income children to public schools of their choice, an issue known as “Title I portability.” Democrats do not support portability, and the Senate voted down the idea last week. This is seen as a significant issue in the negotiations.

Public School Choice: As noted, the House version (a/k/a “the Student Success Act”), includes “Title I portability,” which would allow federal funding for poor students to follow children to any public school, but not a private school. States would have to set aside 3 percent of their Title I funds for a competitive-grant program that would allow districts to offer public school choice or free tutoring.

Under the Senate version (aka “the Every Child Achieves Act”) states may, but are not required to, allow students in low-performing public schools to transfer to a better-performing public school.

Student Testing: Both versions would essentially leave in place the law’s annual testing schedule, under which states would have to test students in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math, and once in high school, plus science in certain grade spans. States must make the results public, and provide data to show how different subgroups of students, such as racial minorities, are doing relative to other students. Both versions encourage states and districts to examine how many tests they require and scrap any assessments that are duplicative or low-quality.

The House version would permit states to allow districts to offer local assessments instead of state tests, so long as the results are comparable to state assessments. The local tests would have to be included in the state’s plan for using federal Title I money for low-income students, which requires approval from the U.S. Department of Education. However, states wouldn’t have to get express permission from the federal government to offer local tests. The House version would also allow parents to opt their children out of “required” tests without any penalties for their schools.

The Senate version also allows for some limited local testing.  Up to five states could get permission from the U.S. Department of Education to try out new forms of assessments, such as competency-based or performance assessments in selected school districts, with the goal of eventually applying such new testing systems statewide.

Low-Performing Schools: The House bill would eliminate the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, which offers formula grants to states to improve low-performing schools. Instead, states would set aside 7 percent of their own Title I money for school improvement. States would have to intervene in low-performing Title I schools; however, the bill doesn’t tell them how to do so, or how many schools to try to fix at a time. 

The Senate version would also eliminate the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, but includes other federal funding aimed at low-performing schools. School districts would be in charge of figuring out how to improve those schools, with help from states. States would have to monitor district turnarounds, and step in if low-performing schools are not improving; however, the federal government would be prohibited from telling states or districts how to fix struggling schools.

Teacher Quality: Under the House bill states could use federal teacher-quality funding to set up teacher evaluations if they choose, but are not required to do so. The House bill eliminates the NCLB law’s “highly qualified” teacher requirements and consolidates other teacher quality programs.

The Senate bill eliminates the definition of “highly qualified teacher” and instead allows states decide what constitutes teacher quality. The Senate version would require States to address the equitable distribution of quality teachers.

Funding Provisions: The House bill would repeal “maintenance of effort” requirements, which call for states and districts to hold their own spending at the prior year level or higher in order to tap federal funds; however, it would keep the “supplement-not-supplant” rule, which essentially says that federal funds can’t be used to backfill cuts in state and local dollars. The House version would maintain current law regarding schoolwide Title I programs. While it would make a l tweak to the Title I formula, the House version stops short of making sweeping changes regarding how the dollars are distributed.

The Senate bill would change the formula for distributing Title I dollars for disadvantaged kids, so that there would be less of an emphasis on population, and more on poverty. These changes wouldn’t kick in until funding for the Title I program, currently at more than $14 billion, reaches $17 billion. That could take awhile. The Senate version, unlike the House version, would keep in place “maintenance of effort,” which requires states to keep their own funding at the prior year level in order to tap federal Title I funds. However, it would give states and school districts more flexibility in how they meet their required level of funding. And, under the Senate version, schools would still be required to target Title I funds to low-income students, unless 40 percent of their students are in poverty.

Existing Targeted Federal Programs and Preschool Programs: The House bill would merge a number of programs aimed at migrant students, English-language learners, and neglected and delinquent children with the much larger Title I program for disadvantaged students. Districts could use the funds for any activity allowed under those programs. No money could be transferred out of Title I schools, but funds could go to other low-income schools. And the House bill would eliminate, or consolidate, nearly 70 programs, some of which haven’t received federal funding for several years.

The Senate version would maintain existing, separate federal programs for disadvantaged students, migrant kids, English-language learners, and other special populations. The Senate bill would also eliminate some federal programs, but it would create a new preschool program for the first time in ESEA. The provisions are patterned after preschool development grants the Obama administration has pushed for previously. Whether this provision survives the Conference Committee negotiations could be an indication of whether the rewrite process will remain bipartisan or not.