Kline and Senate ally launching new push for NCLB overhaul and less federal oversight

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The plan contemplated by Rep. John Kline and his Senate counterpart, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, would essentially do away with federal oversight of schools. MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

Beth Hawkins, MinnPost, January 6, 2015

Another midterm, another turn of the worm.

Four years ago this space carried a story noting that Rep. John Kline’s appointment as chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful Education and the Workforce Committee made the Lakeville Republican a formidable — if loyal— opponent to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Alas, the personal relationship the two men enjoyed did nothing to stave off gridlock, and so no progress was made toward replacing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which expired in 2007.

Two years later, of course, Duncan simply began end-running Congress, passing out waivers from compliance with NCLB’s most ill-conceived provisions to states willing to draft their own accountability plans.

Now, with his party’s much firmer grip on the House, Kline is rattling his saber again. The plan contemplated by him and his Senate counterpart, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, would essentially do away with federal oversight of schools.

Politico Pro has an excellent analysis of the push and all the attendant handicapping and Machiavellian intrigue, which I won’t reprise here. I commend it to you, though: It’s a good primer to what education policy debates will look like in the next few months.

I will leave you to your reading with a couple of observations, however. In case Politico doesn’t make this point forcefully enough, Kline likely can muster the votes to do whatever he wants in the House. In order to garner the votes necessary to prevent a Senate filibuster his team will need the support of six Democrats.

Which they just might get, given that a gutting of the law’s accountability provisions could drastically pare back the apples-to-apples tests schools are now required to administer. The country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has been pushing for this for years.

It’s not far-fetched to think the popular groundswell that talk of doing away with standardized tests is likely to conjure will make crossing the aisle more comfortable for some Democrats and a veto harder for President Barack Obama.

A second observation: It will be interesting to see the details of Kline’s proposal, given that his was a relatively moderate voice in education before he was confronted with his party’s Tea Party wing, which pushed him to consider some very extreme measures, such as abolishing the U.S. Department of Education altogether.

And finally, as much as NCLB was a train wreck, and as much as the public — if not necessarily scholars and policymakers — has come to believe that American schools are being crushed by tests, the 2002 reform did much to illuminate inequities.

A decade ago we did not have data that showed the size of the black-white achievement gap in Minnesota schools, the disparities in punitive and destructive discipline practices that push students out of school, and the hugely uneven distribution of teaching talent and resources.

If Obama, who has in the last year stepped up on the worst of these civil-rights issues, wants to keep the data that fuels the sense of urgency, he might want to consider how much influence over the narrative he has ceded.

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