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No Child Left Behind gets renewed focus

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POSTED December 2, 2014 12:02 a.m.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The No Child Left Behind education law could be making a political comeback.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is the incoming chairman of the Senate committee overseeing education, says his top education priority is fixing the landmark Bush-era law. His goal? Get a bill signed by President Barack Obama early next year.

Doing so will require bipartisanship that’s been elusive since the law, primarily designed to help minority and poor children, came up for renewal in 2007.

The law requires schools to show annual growth in student achievement or face consequences, with all students expected to be proficient in reading and math this year.  It has been credited with shining a light on how schools handle minority, low-income, English learners and special needs students, but led to complaints that teachers were teaching to standardized tests and that mandates were unrealistic and penalties ineffective.

Obama since 2012 has allowed states to get a waiver from some of the more stringent requirements of the law, but they had to agree to requirements such as adopting college and career ready standards — like Common Core — and implementing teacher evaluation systems with teeth. More than 40 states have a waiver.

The waivers left alone a federal requirement of annual standardized testing in grades three to eight and testing once in high school. The testing provisions are likely to be part of the debate.

Alexander, a pragmatic lawmaker, is no stranger to education policy. He served as education secretary under George H.W. Bush, as president of the University of Tennessee and as Tennessee governor.

He says that “excessive regulation of local schools by Washington is getting in the way of better schools.” He and House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., say the federal government needs to get out of the business of deciding what to do about low-performing schools, education standards and teacher evaluations.

But, Alexander has also acknowledged the political reality — even if Congress passes a bill, Obama would need to sign it to become law.

“We’ll work with Secretary Duncan and the president in hopes we can persuade them that what we want to do is also what they want to do,” Alexander said, referring to Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan.

Recent history shows just how difficult that can be.

In 2013, a bill to update No Child Left Behind backed by Kline passed the full House with no Democratic support. The Senate Education Committee, led by Democrats, passed a bill the same year with no Republicans on board. It would have put more control in the hands of states but would have given the federal education secretary more leverage than Kline’s plan.

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