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The U.S. Senate opened debate Tuesday on the best shot in years at a bipartisan fix for No Child Left Behind, the nation’s widely criticized education law.

The GOP chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s ranking Democrat, kicked off the floor debate on the bill they co-authored.  That debate is expected to last through next week.

Their proposed overhaul wouldn’t eliminate testing to identify struggling schools, but it would shift power from the U.S. Department of Education back to the states to decide how much student test scores should count when judging a school’s performance or a teacher’s effectiveness.

That shift also would end the federal policy of granting states waivers from the strictest consequences of the law, which required that all students pass their state’s reading and math exams by 2014 — a goal many education experts considered unrealistic and no state reached.

Most states received waivers in exchange for enacting policies favored by President Obama — a move his administration made after Congress repeatedly failed to update the law when it expired in 2007.

Sen. Patty Murray. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Sen. Patty Murray. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Washington became the first state in the country to lose its waiver last year when the state Legislature refused to mandate the use of student scores on statewide tests as part of a teacher’s evaluation.

“And now, most of the schools in my state are categorized as ‘failing’,” Murray said in her opening remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday.

“As I have traveled around Washington state over the past decade, I have heard from so many of my constituents — from teachers in the classroom, to moms in the grocery store, to tech company CEOs — that we need to fix No Child Left Behind,” Murray said.

The path forward won’t be easy.

Even if the proposal wins passage in the Senate, it may have to be reconciled with a separate education bill in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which has not yet passed, but is expected to be more conservative than the Senate version.