Congress Sends Bill Overhauling Nation’s Education Law to Obama

The new law will limit federal oversight and give states more flexibility.

President Obama will sign an overhaul of the nation's federal education law on Thursday morning, a day after the Senate passed the Every Student Succeeds Act.  (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate have passed a rewrite of the nation’s federal education law to replace the much-maligned No Child Left Behind.

By a margin of 85-12, the Senate voted Wednesday morning in favor of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Republican presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio did not cast votes, and Democratic contender Bernie Sanders also abstained. The House passed the bill, 359-64.

The legislation, which President Obama is expected to sign into law Thursday morning, significantly reduces the Education Department’s power over items like teacher evaluations and gives states more power to decide how they spend funds.

But Democrats, particularly civil rights advocates, have managed to keep so-called accountability measures, designed to protect the nation’s most vulnerable students, in the final bill, and portability, the ability for disadvantaged students to essentially take funding with them if they moved to a new public or charter school within their district, has been kept out.

The bill is “far from perfect,” Education Trust spokeswoman Daria Hall told Next America. But the nonprofit, which advocates on behalf of low-income children of color, thinks it’s a step in the right direction. “We believe that now it is up to states to prove their leadership on strong implementation and we stand ready to both pressure and support states in the work,” Hall said.

“I think we were always very optimistic it was going to pass,” said a Democratic congressional aide, who called the bill a “strong step forward.”

Passage looked tenuous earlier this fall when, in a matter of a few weeks, House Speaker John Boehner stepped down, Rep. John Kline—chairman of the House Education Committee and an important player in rewrite negotiations—announced he would retire, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he would give up his post to return to Chicago. But Sen. Patty Murray, one of the lead architects of the compromise, who has a history of working across lines with new House Speaker Paul Ryan on budget deals, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, spent weeks hashing out an agreement that has broad support from teachers’ unions, education organizations, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Now Murray, Alexander, and their colleagues will turn their attention toward making sure states work to implement the new policies, among them a requirement that the progress of vulnerable subgroups of students, such as English-language learners, is measured and that schools implement plans to help those who are struggling.

“I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement at the state level about the shift,” the aide said.

For more background on what is and is not included in the rewrite, Next America has a roundup here. But it’s worth pointing out a few things. Kids will still take tests, but teacher evaluations will no longer necessarily be tied to how students perform. "Super subgroups," which have allowed states to lump English-language learners, special-education students, and others together, are a thing of the past, a win for civil rights groups who have argued the practice allowed states to overlook vulnerable kids’ needs. And a number of programs have been consolidated into a block grant, in a win for Republicans. For the first time ever, there is dedicated funding for early-childhood education, a need lawmakers in both parties have emphasized.

“It really is kind of a testament to the bipartisan work of policymakers, their staff, and the whole kind of advocacy community that pushed for this,” Hall said.

How exactly implementation and enforcement will play out remains to be seen and is an area of concern for some advocacy groups, particularly since the new law will limit the secretary’s power. But Democrats involved in the negotiations say they are confident the secretary will retain enough power to enforce the new policies. And Republicans are pleased that states and districts will be able to pivot away from what they say are onerous, one-size-fits-all requirements.

“The real winners in this remarkable consensus will be 50 million children in 100,000 public schools,” Alexander said in a statement shortly after the bill’s passage in the Senate.

Now states and districts must begin the process of putting the components of the bill, the first overhaul of the nation’s education law in 14 years, into practice.