States Rights at Heart of New 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

Critics say the bill would leave minorities behind, others say it is still government overreach.

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In a year of bitterly partisan battles over the budget, debt, and anything else with a deadline, the Senate hopes to break through congressional quagmire to replace the wildly unpopular No Child Left Behind education policy. The legislation would obviate the need for the Obama administration's waivers of the education law's requirements, something 41 states have already said they would apply for, and any such sweeping revision would put some certainty back into the education sector, which has been waiting for reforms since the current law was due for a revamp in 2007.

But the effort will not be easy.

The proposal already draws steep criticism, both from those who think it strips too many protections for minority and low-income students, and also from those who believe it still represents government overreach. At the heart of the battle, though, is determining whether, and to what extent, the states can be trusted on educational equity. And how large of a role the federal government should play in making sure all students succeed.

[Read: The end is near for No Child Left Behind.]

"Historically, states did not do what was right," admits Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. States set widely varying standards, if any, for student learning, and many at-risk students fell through the cracks. Wilhoit explains that this led the federal government to be more prescriptive; for example, requiring schools to report student success broken down into student subgroups based on things like race and socioeconomic status, and setting deadlines for student progress. In response, states became more standardized, but less innovative, he adds. "The question is, have the states evolved to a position where they will take responsibility for reforming education, and how far can a federal program design that's prescriptive in methodology carry a country to excellence?" he asks.

Wilhoit believes it is time for states to be granted more leeway, and he thinks the new bill, is a giant step in that direction. "States have shown, over the last few years, that they are a very different sort of entity than they were a number of years ago," he says.

The fight is already heating up in Congress. Even today's scheduled markup in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee faced opposition. Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa planned to plow through the proposed amendments with an all-day meeting, but Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul raised procedural objections, ending the session immediately and effectively stalling the bill's progress. Paul has complained the bill still allows too great a role for federal government in education. Harkin said he planned to reconvene later in the day or at 8 a.m. Thursday.

The move could be an omen for the bipartisan sponsors of the bill—Harkin, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the committee's ranking member—who expressed hope they could move the bill onto the Senate floor quickly. Both admitted in their opening remarks today that the bill wasn't perfect, but was the result of bipartisan compromise. "It's the way we used to work around here, and it's the way we should be doing work around here," Harkin said.

The central policy change is the accountability mechanism. Under No Child Left Behind, 100 percent of students need to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Under Harkin and Enzi's bill, schools would need to demonstrate "continuous improvement" in student outcomes, and in most cases, states would have more discretion over how to intervene in troubled schools. Also, the bill would require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards with the accompanying tests—most states are already well on their way into doing so—and it would codify competitive grant programs enacted under the Obama administration, including "Race to the Top," "Investing in Innovation," and "Promise Neighborhoods," which provide funds in exchange for innovations.

[Obama 'No Child' Waiver Proposals Rile Conservatives.]