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After All That Senate Consensus on NCLB, the Real Accountability Debate Begins

By Carolyn Phenicie | July 17, 2015

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Washington, D.C.
If it were possible to drop balloons from the ceiling or shoot confetti rockets in the United States Senate, that might’ve happened Thursday when the chamber passed its No Child left Behind bill by a vote of 81 to 17.
Members and advocacy groups of all political stripes hailed the passage of the bill, the first serious effort at reauthorization in years, and the cooperation education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and his Democratic counterpart, Patty Murray, had shown in negotiating the measure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even told Alexander and Murray “the Senate is proud of you.”
Yet for all the celebrating, a huge storm cloud looms that could rain on Congress’s education parade: the issue of school accountability.
Democrats in both chambers and the White House last week united decisively around the issue, eager to retain the bill’s history as a civil rights protection. But retaining a broad federal role in school accountability remains anathema to Republicans’ ideal of keeping federal hands out of K-12 education as much as possible.
Democrats, and allies in the civil rights movement, staked their claim early. All but three members of the Senate Democrats’ caucus (Democrats Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Jon Tester of Montana, and Maine Independent Angus King) voted last week for an amendment to require interventions in failing schools. The number was even more than expected, given the strong opposition from longtime Democratic ally the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union.
Although the amendment didn’t pass, Democrats made it clear they aren’t done trying. Murray was adamant both before and after the final Senate vote that she’d continue fighting for more accountability protections.
“I will continue to work hard, alongside ranking member Bobby Scott in the House and the administration, to make accountability and resource equity a priority in conference,” she warned just after the landslide vote.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, too, put negotiators on notice that the Obama administration won’t back something without stronger required interventions in failing schools.
“We cannot tolerate continued indifference to the lowest performing schools, achievement gaps that let some students fall behind, or high schools where huge numbers of students never make it to graduation,” Duncan said in a statement. He added that he looks forward to continuing to work with congressional negotiators before the bill reaches President Obama sometime after Congress returns from its annual summer recess in September.  
Despite Democrats’ hard line, they’ve got equally adamant opponents on the other side of the issue.
Alexander has long been a proponent of fewer federal interventions in schools, what he is fond of calling the “national school board.” Forty Republicans voted for an amendment in the Senate, sponsored by Texas Republican and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, to let states decide whether or not to use assessments and accountability systems at all.
"A balance can and should be reached between state and local control and the federal government’s responsibility to ensure America’s children are prepared to compete in tomorrow’s economy"
In the House, so many conservatives voted against an even more hands-off Republican bill that it was in danger of not passing when members considered it earlier this month.
The issue certainly could derail negotiations at some point in the process, although at least some advocates think it’s more likely than not that an accountability provision ends up in the ultimate compromise.The conference process — either some formal meetings, the real behind-the-scenes work by staffers or some combination of both — will also take place after the summer break.
The Obama administration certainly wants No Child Left Behind to be fixed. But because it has a heavy hand in education policy via waivers — agreements that let states off the hook for meeting NCLB’s unachievable performance targets in exchange for adopting policies the administration favors —for the time being there’s little incentive to give that leverage up for a bill the president doesn’t like. Enough Senate Democrats backed the accountability amendment that they could also filibuster any deal that doesn’t include it.
When it comes to convincing Republicans to jump on board, accountability hawks have the backing of an unusual ally: the Chamber of Commerce. The group has long been in favor of forcing improvements in schools, and last week wrote to senators to say they wouldn’t back a final deal that doesn’t hold schools accountable for improving results for all children identified as falling behind.
“A balance can and should be reached between state and local control and the federal government’s responsibility to ensure America’s children are prepared to compete in tomorrow’s economy,” the chamber’s VP of government affairs wrote in the July 15 letter.
At least one observer thinks that Alexander, House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline and House Speaker John Boehner, who will have to sell the deal to his unruly caucus, can be convinced to back a measure with more accountability.
“It’s a tough case to make but [Alexander and Boehner] have shown themselves very desirous of getting something done,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics programs at Third Way, a centrist group.
There is an unofficial rule in the House, named after former speaker Dennis Hastert, that Republican leadership won’t bring a bill to the floor unless the bulk of the caucus —  the majority of the majority —  supports it. This rule holds even for bills that leaders want to take up that could pass with backing from Democrats. Boehner has broken it a few times, but only for time-sensitive issues like keeping the federal government open or preventing the government from defaulting on its debt.
But Hatalsky thinks the persuasive Senate vote – 39 of 54 members backed the bill, nearly three-quarters of the GOP caucus – also means much of the House Republican caucus can jump on board.
And Boehner has a big margin to work with: he’d need 124 of his 246 members to keep with the Hastert Rule so could still afford to lose 94 Republicans who backed the House’s bill earlier this month. Support from the most of the chamber’s 188 Democrats could get the bill over the hurdle to passage.
“Everybody’s looking at an 800-page bill and saying there’s about two pages we have left to fix here, so there’s gotta be a way we can figure this,” Hatalsky said.
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