WASHINGTON — A red-faced Rep. George Miller refusing to yield his time to a Republican lawmaker highlighted the simmering partisan tension at Tuesday’s House committee hearing on education reform.
The session amounted to a debate between majority Republicans wanting to give power to states to run their schools, and Democrats cautioning that the lack of federal oversight would have negative consequences.
“A serious attempt to rewrite ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) would involve consensus building and bipartisanship…” Miller said. “It would not turn its back on the civil rights promise of this nation: that every child deserves a fair shot at success, no matter their background.”
However, many Republican members supported the legislation’s intent to give power back to the states to improve their schools while using federal dollars at their own discretion.
Two bills, the Student Success Act and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act were part of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, the landmark education reform law signed by President Bush in 2002. NCLB has been due for an overhaul since 2007, but lawmakers have been unable to reach agreement.
On Tuesday, the two new bills were approved in committee and recommended for passage by the full House in identical votes of 23 to 16.
The GOP-backed proposals aim to improve teacher effectiveness and school quality, and also give states flexibility in how they use federal money.
A substitute bill by committee Democrats to all but rewrite the Student Success legislation through an amendment was resoundingly defeated by Republicans. The Democratic plan would have required oversight of the standards created by states. The defeated amendment would have also barred diversion of federal funds meant for disadvantaged students to other purposes.
“(The House bill) seems to focus more on ideology, quite frankly, than equity,” said Rep. Susan A. Davis, D-Calif., who supported the Democratic substitution.
In the Student Success Act, House Republicans will hand over authority to state and local governments to create their own accountability measures for schools’ success, measuring the effectiveness of teachers, and creating academic assessments.
Many Democrat members argued that the bill, if passed, would ignore the needs of specific students such as minorities, those with disabilities or those from low-income communities.
Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., said he worried about the future of students with special needs and in “special situations,” if all of the programs catering to these students were placed under the Title I umbrella. Title I funding is designated for disadvantaged students with the aim of closing achievement gaps in schools.
“When you take a program and throw it all into one section, you lose the identity of that program,” Kildee said. “…And then when you lose the identity of the program, historically you’ll find out that you begin to lose some of the advocacy of the program…and then, for sure, you begin to lose funding.”
After the Democrats’ sweeping amendment was voted down, two Republican amendments to the act were passed. One amendment would end the process of providing populous school districts with more Title I funding than smaller, yet higher poverty, school districts.
Both amendments were strict partisan votes, underlining the inability of both parties to agree.
The Senate’s version of education reform was approved by the body’s education committee with bipartisan support last October.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., said, the Republicans’ victory would not mean much down the road.
“It’s better to have a good bipartisan bill than a bill that unfortunately, it might get onto the floor for a vote, but it’s not going anywhere,” McCarthy said. “And so we have just wasted another year.”