Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Tuesday they have reached a bipartisan agreement on how to rewrite the long-stalled federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.
States, not the federal government, would choose how to sanction or help struggling schools under a bipartisan proposal to overhaul the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.
The proposal, released Tuesday, was written by the GOP chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Patty Murray of Washington.
Their agreement calls for a shift in power away from the U.S. Department of Education and back to states and school districts, allowing states to decide how much student test scores should count when judging a school’s performance or a teacher’s effectiveness.
It also marks a potential end to the stalemate over how to rewrite the widely criticized No Child law, which was enacted in 2001 and expired in 2007. Since then, nearly every state has asked for 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 all states failed to reach, and many critics have long said was impossible.
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“This bipartisan compromise is an important step toward fixing the broken No Child Left Behind law,” Murray said in a news release. “While there is still work to be done, this agreement is a strong step in the right direction.”
This isn’t the first time Murray has brokered a high-stakes bipartisan deal. As chair of the Senate Budget Committee in 2013, she worked with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., her counterpart in the House, to craft a two-year suspension from congressionally mandated budget cuts known as sequestration.
Murray and Alexander have been working on the No Child proposal for months, trying to deal with issues ranging from the level of testing that it should require to whether test scores would be used in evaluating teachers. No Child is the federal government’s most far-reaching education law, and it has been around in one form or another since the 1960s.
On Tuesday, Murray said their agreement would repair the law’s shortcomings but keep what has worked, including tracking students’ academic progress by school and district, but also by race, income and disability.
Students would still be required to take standardized tests in reading and math each year in grades three through eight and once in high school, as well as a science test three times between kindergarten and 12th grade. States would also be required to use students’ scores from those tests — as well as graduation rates — when evaluating schools, but states could choose how much weight to put on them and what other factors to use.
Murray and Alexander also are proposing a pilot program based on what they called “innovative assessment systems,” but provided few details about what that might look like.
If passed, the bill would continue federal grants to help states and school districts improve low-performing schools, but school districts — not the Department of Education — would decide how to use that money. Under the current No Child law, schools deemed underperforming must set aside some of their federal dollars to offer some students the opportunity to go to higher-performing schools, and to receive outside tutoring.
Last year, Washington became the first state to lose its waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act because state lawmakers refused to require student test scores be included as part of a teacher’s evaluation — a condition for any state that wanted a waiver. They instead chose to leave that decision up to each school district.
As a result, Washington school districts lost control over how to spend an estimated $40 million that they had to set aside to cover the costs of students who asked to be bused to higher-performing schools or who sought outside tutoring.
And last year, more than 1,900 of Washington’s roughly 2,200 public schools were labeled as failing under the No Child requirements.
If the Murray-Alexander agreement passes, it would eliminate the need for waivers because it would restore the flexibility that Washington and other states used to have in how they judged school performance, within some minimum federal guidelines.
State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, who leads the education committee in the state House of Representatives, said the agreement would free Washington from what she called the punitive, inflexible requirements of the No Child law. Washington could work in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, she said, instead of at its “beck and call.”
“I’m very excited,” Santos said. “I think it really righted a governance relationship, from the state’s perspective.”
Chris Nieuwenhuis, president of the Washington State School Directors Association, said in a statement that if the proposal passes, it will “end the foolishness” associated with the outdated and troublesome current law.
“We look forward to a day when misleading and misguided school failure notices are replaced by meaningful conversations about school improvement,” he added.
Gov. Jay Inslee also applauded Murray, saying the proposal makes important changes that will better help struggling schools and students.
In a statement, he said the proposal shows that Murray listened to the concerns of parents, educators, school board members and lawmakers in the state.
State schools chief Randy Dorn said in a statement he still believes student test scores should be tied to a teacher’s evaluation — the sticking point that caused the state to lose its No Child waiver in the first place.
Still, he said, he considers the proposal “a good first step.”
Also included in the Murray-Alexander proposal is language that would bar the government from mandating states to adopt or providing them with incentives to use any one set of learning standards, as the Department of Education did as part of its Race to the Top grant program. States or districts that committed to use the Common Core standards received points for doing so in the competition for big Race to the Top grants.
Murray and Alexander have scheduled a discussion of their proposal in the Senate Education Committee next Tuesday.