The final bill is still being drafted, but a House-Senate conference committee approved its framework in an overwhelming vote—of the 40-member panel, only Senator Rand Paul voted against it. Despite concerns about the restrictions the new law would place on the secretary of education, the White House “is pleased with the framework,” said Roberto Rodríguez, an education adviser on Obama’s Domestic Policy Council. Advisers and advocates in both parties described the bill as a genuine compromise between a bipartisan plan that passed the Senate and a more conservative House bill that would have eviscerated the federal role in education policy and shifted more resources away from needy schools.
Praise has come from unlikely corners.
“It corrects what the federal government has gotten wrong in terms of policy, but it maintains what the federal government has right in terms of policy,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told me in a phone interview. “Is it perfect? Of course not. But by doing those two things simultaneously, it’s a very big step.”
Unions have railed against the mandates for teacher evaluations that the Obama administration required in exchange for No Child Left Behind waivers, calling them an excuse to scapegoat educators. While the new law would keep in place requirements for yearly testing of students in grades three through eight and once in high school, it scraps the federal evaluation requirement. And instead of mandating that schools demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” through test scores, the government would allow states to submit their own plan for accountability that could take into account factors beyond testing.
“Our bipartisan agreement will reduce reliance on high-stakes testing, so students and teachers can spend less time on test prep and more time on learning,” said Senator Patty Murray, the lead Democratic negotiator.
Democrats successfully pushed for what they called “federal guardrails,” or provisions that allow Washington to intervene if states don’t address schools performing in the lowest 5 percent or where more than one-third of students drop out before graduation. States will also be required to report data on the performance of key subgroups to ensure that disadvantaged students aren’t being ignored, and the law would cap at 1 percent the proportion of students with disabilities who could be excluded from the main state assessments.
“This is not an up-and-down conservative triumph,” said Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The federal machinery of NCLB, while largely defanged, is still in place. From the administration perspective, that’s a win. They get to keep that machinery and the head-nodding toward Washington.”
Yet Hess said that overall, Republicans got 75 to 80 percent of what they wanted. They succeeded in their drive to consolidate about four dozen federal programs and shift the balance of power in education policy strongly back to the states. Many of the Democratic “wins” in the bill were about preventing even more conservative policies from becoming law, not advancing the vision of accountability-driven reform that Obama and his departing education secretary, Arne Duncan, promoted early in their tenure through competitive programs like Race to the Top. Duncan in particular has become a target of ire for conservatives, and Republican negotiators insisted on provisions that specifically rein in the secretary’s power to grant waivers in the manner that Duncan did.