Though getting a sweeping federal education bill out of a Senate committee feels momentous given Congress's heightened partisan atmosphere, Senators Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) and Mike Enzi's (R-Wyo.) measure faces a rocky road.
Their bill would reauthorize the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which became known as No Child Left Behind during its last overhaul a decade ago. A product of compromise, the new bill rolls back the federal government's role in school accountability, enshrines the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition and does not mandate rigorous teacher evaluations.
Harkin and Enzi's bill passed through the Senate Health, Labor, Education, & Pensions Committee one week ago today, garnering three Republican votes.
NCLB has been up for a rewrite since 2007, amid cries from governors and teachers that the law is punitive and labels a large swath of schools as "failing" based on arbitrary benchmarks. NCLB required regular testing of public school students in English and math and the analysis and dissemination of that testing data, and imposed increasing sanctions on schools that didn't make performance benchmarks known as "Adequate Yearly Progress." The law set targets for about 100-percent student proficiency on math and reading tests in 2014, leading to states' concerns over having to sanction the majority of their schools.
In a speech last year, Obama asked that Congress move forward with reauthorizing the law by the start of this school year. When that didn't happen, he and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan essentially rewrote it on their own by releasing a waiver package that allows states that adapt the administration's reforms to opt out of the law's most cumbersome requirements. After the waiver package was released, ESEA bills proliferated in the House and Senate, cresting with the release of the Harkin-Enzi bill, the first comprehensive rewrite since the law's expiration.
But critics, such as data-driven education-reform groups and civil-rights groups, have said that Harkin has watered down the bill so much in the name of bipartisanship that it would be better to go back to the drawing board and forgo the small window of opportunity this rewrite has of reaching the President's desk.
After the bill's passage through committee, the next step would be Senate floor discussion. But with the hubbub of the super committee's activities and Obama's emphasis on the jobs plan, there are no guarantees the bill will get time on the floor.