After months of pleading from President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Senate Democrats and Republicans appear to be willing to work together to revise No Child Left Behind, the comprehensive public education law that was enacted in early 2002.
The administration has begun granting waivers to states to allow them to opt out of parts of the law that require students to reach certain benchmarks in math and reading. This summer, Duncan called the law a "slow-motion train wreck." But a bipartisan group of senators has agreed to start working on the bill, which might render the waivers unnecessary.
On Monday, Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, and Sen. Mike Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming, introduced a sweeping, 860-page replacement bill that Duncan and other top ranking politicians say is a good start, but will require some work. The biggest change is the removal of "adequate yearly progress" benchmarks—targets that the Department of Education estimates 80 percent of schools will miss by 2014.
Harkin said in a statement that the bill represents "an important step forward for our children, our schools, and our nation," and that "it will support teaching and learning rather than labeling and sanctioning."
[Learn more about science and math initiatives in the new No Child Left Behind bill.]
The new, bipartisan bill still faces an uphill battle toward passage, Enzi acknowledged in a statement. "This is not a perfect bill, nor does it solve every education issue. But it will make a huge, positive difference to our nation's young people," he said.
The Harkin-Enzi bill removes a provision in Harkin's original draft that would require states and local school boards to devise teacher evaluation systems, with student performance being one of the key factors. Duncan said in a statement that the administration believes that provision needs to return.
"A comprehensive evaluation system based on multiple measures, including student achievement, is essential for education reform to move forward," Duncan said. "We cannot retreat from reform."
Meanwhile, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), says that the bill is a good start, but that he would offer amendments that put more control in the hands of state and local school boards.
Alexander says he will vote to move the bill out of the HELP committee and onto the Senate floor, but that the bill is "not ready yet to send to the president."
Alexander is concerned about three federal mandates that he says help create a "national school board," with Arne Duncan as the board's "czar": the teacher evaluation requirement; a requirement that states identify their lowest-performing schools; and a requirement that all schools show "continuous improvement."
"I don't think we need either a czar of education who grants waivers to 15,000 school districts, or a chairman of a national school board," Alexander says. "I think if we were going to have such a czar or chairman that Arne Duncan would be a good one … but I'm going to do my best to avoid both options and get a common sense bill passed."
Alexander says he's optimistic that Congress will have a revised bill "on the president's desk by Christmas," adding, "I think Congress has no good excuse for not fixing No Child Left Behind ... I think we ought to get started."