Senate committee makes progress on updates to education law

Patrick Semansky/AP

A Senate committee made progress Wednesday on a bipartisan update to the No Child Left Behind education law with a final vote expected Thursday afternoon.

In all, the committee has passed 24 amendments and defeated six. Dozens more amendments were debated but withdrawn as lawmakers sought to find common ground and leave some of the tougher fights for later.

Lawmakers are intent on ensuring that schools continue to use annual standardized tests to measure student performance. But they are moving toward letting states determine how much weight to give the tests in evaluating school performance. The move is in response to frequent criticism that the federal government is playing too great a role in shaping what is taught in the classroom.

Amendments approved on Wednesday tended to focus on renewing programs designed to help low-income children or those with special needs. For example, lawmakers voted to renew a program that helps poor students qualify and pay for taking college-level classes while in high school. Lawmakers also renewed a grant program that trains teachers to identify and reach out to gifted children, particularly in poor schools where the students can get overlooked.

An extended debate over school bullying helped push consideration of the bill into Thursday. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the committee, sponsored legislation that would require schools to establish policies to prevent bullying, but some Democratic lawmakers said they preferred an alternative proposal from Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania that was more specific about what constituted harassment.

"Bullying is a national epidemic," Casey said. "Students are committing suicide because of it."

Alexander said it was better to have local school boards dictate what's in their bullying policies, not Washington. Lawmakers finally opted to seek a compromise later rather than force a vote.

Lawmakers have lauded the intent of No Child Left Behind, which became law in 2002. But they increasingly seek distance from the law as schools find the performance benchmarks to be unreachable. The Senate bill jettisons the No Child Left Behind name altogether. Authors instead called it The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015.

The White House has cheered the Senate efforts. A proposal in the House is still taking shape after generating criticism from conservatives as well as Democratic lawmakers.