The Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law has long been criticized as unworkable, too punitive and in need of repair. After years of trying, Congress is finally on the verge of rewriting the 2002 law.
House and Senate negotiators approved a compromise framework Thursday that merges two different education bills that cleared the House and Senate in July. Votes in the full House and Senate are expected early next month.
The Senate bill passed this summer with overwhelming support. The House measure was more conservative, and narrowly passed.
What you need to know about the compromise measure:
WHY THE UPDATE?
No Child Left Behind was approved with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.
It had lofty goals — to get all children up to par in reading and math by 2014. But when it became clear that the goal was unattainable, the Obama administration began to issue waivers to states. In exchange, the states had to submit federally approved plans to raise student performance.
Republicans and other critics accused the administration of overreach.
The law has been up for renewal since 2007, but contentious disagreement over such things as the role of the federal government in education stymied passage of an updated bill.
No Child Left Behind required annual testing of children in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. The compromise measure would continue that testing requirement.
However, the bill would let states decide whether or how to use students' performance on tests to assess teachers, students and schools — ending federal efforts to tie those scores to teacher evaluations.
There have been complaints for years from teachers, parents, students, lawmakers and others about too much testing in the nation's schools. Even the White House has suggested capping standardized testing at 2 percent of classroom time.
While the new conference bill doesn't have a mandate about testing caps, it does encourage them.
An amendment from Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, says states should set caps on the total amount of time kids spend taking tests. He said federal testing requirements have resulted in additional layers of state and district level tests, and some of those may be redundant or unnecessary.
"We ought to think differently about each test. Testing for teaching and learning needs to be continuous, ongoing, and inform a teacher's instruction and the principal's leadership," said Bennett. "It's the testing done for accountability purposes that needs serious re-evaluation."
FEDERAL ROLE IN EDUCATION
The compromise sharply reduces the federal role in education, giving the states the authority to determine a school's performance. There would no longer be federal sanctions for schools judged to be underperforming. However, states would be required to intervene in the nation's lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high school dropout factories and schools with persistent achievement gaps.
The Education Department also would be barred from mandating or giving states incentives to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, such as the college and career-ready curriculum guidelines known as Common Core.
Common Core has become a lightning rod for those who sought a reduced federal role in education, even though the standards were created by the states. The Obama administration, however, dangled grants through its Race to the Top program for states that adopted strong academic standards for its students.
Republicans had pushed the concept of portability — allowing money to follow low-income students to public schools of their choice. Now, those dollars remain at the struggling schools.
Democrats had fought against the concept and the compromise bill includes only a pilot program that would allow federal money to move with students in some school districts.
The White House had threatened to veto the bill passed by the House in July and also expressed dissatisfaction with the Senate's version of the bill.
After the compromise was approved on Thursday, it struck a more optimistic tone.
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the measure that emerged from the conference committee was an improvement over the versions that passed the House and Senate this summer. But the official, who could not speak publicly because details of the bill were still under review, stopped short of saying whether President Barack Obama would sign in it.
—"Today's conference committee vote is another encouraging step in the process to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and on behalf of state chiefs, I applaud the work of the committee," said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "The framework maintains annual assessments and gives states additional flexibility in how to design better accountability systems."
—"We are on our way to a new environment in public education. The Senate-House conference report resets education policy with a focus on student learning rather than student testing, while maintaining resources to students with the most needs," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. "It creates the potential to bring back the joy of teaching and learning and to really prepare our kids for their future."
The conference committee will have the full bill ready for lawmakers to read by Nov. 30.
The House would vote sometime that week, as early as Dec. 2. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who sponsored the original Senate bill with Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, said he wants senators to have a full week to read the bill before a vote.