WASHINGTON — More than a decade after No Child Left Behind Act established annual testing and a bigger federal role in the nation’s public schools, the Senate is set to vote on legislation to scale back significant parts of the much-criticized 2002 law.
Lawmakers planned an afternoon vote Thursday to rewrite the law, a week after the House voted to do the same.
Co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the measure would leave in place the law’s annual testing schedule but would shift to states and local districts greater control over whether â and how â to use those tests to assess the performance of schools, teachers and students.
The bill also would prohibit the federal government from requiring or encouraging specific sets of academic standards, such as Common Core. Drafted by the states with the support of the Obama administration, the Common Core standards have become a rallying point for those who want a smaller federal role in education.
As the Senate debated additional amendments to the legislation, Alexander said the goal is to get a bipartisan measure that could be reconciled with the House and sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.
“He knows that there is confusion and anxiety in most of our 100,000 public schools that needs to be settled,” Alexander said, referring to Obama.
The House legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota also lessens the federal involvement in education policy by turning over power to the states to assess school performance and by preventing the Department of Education from pushing Common Core or other standards on schools.
But unlike the more moderate Senate bill, the Kline bill allows federal money to follow low-income children to public schools of their choice, an issue known as portability. Democrats do not support it, and portability was voted down in the Senate last week.
Senators held four floor votes on amendments to the bill on Wednesday. All of them failed.
The White House, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and civil rights groups have urged lawmakers to strengthen the accountability measures in the bill, but an amendment that aimed to do that didn’t get the votes to pass.
It would have required states to identify the lowest-performing five percent of schools, public high schools where two-thirds or fewer students are graduating on time, and public schools where poor, disabled, minority, or English-language learning children were not meeting state achievement goals. States and schools would then have to design plans to turn around the schools.
“No matter your race or your geography, your disability or your income, you deserve access to a quality education. And if we can’t guarantee that, then the question is what good is a federal education law,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who introduced the measure with Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Chris Coons of Delaware and Illinois’ Dick Durbin.
Concerned it gave too much power to Washington, Sen. Alexander urged a “no” vote. The Murphy amendment failed 43-54.
No Child Left Behind, which had bipartisan support and was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002, mandated annual testing in reading and math for students in grades three through eight and again in high school. Schools had to show student growth or face consequences. But critics complained there was too much testing and the law was too punitive on schools deemed to be failing.
The law has been up for reauthorization since 2007.