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Senate clears major new education bill, sends it to Obama

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, is joined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, as he speaks to reporters after the Senate voted overwhelmingly to end debate on the makeover of the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act, setting up a final vote Wednesday,  on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. The sweeping legislation would give the states greater control over the nation's public schools but still maintain annual testing to gauge student progress. [Associated Press]
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, is joined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, as he speaks to reporters after the Senate voted overwhelmingly to end debate on the makeover of the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act, setting up a final vote Wednesday, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. The sweeping legislation would give the states greater control over the nation's public schools but still maintain annual testing to gauge student progress. [Associated Press]
Published Dec. 10, 2015

WASHINGTON — The way the nation's public schools are evaluated — teachers, students and the schools themselves — is headed for a major makeover, with a sweeping shift from federal to state control over school accountability and student testing.

The Senate on Wednesday voted 85-12 to approve legislation rewriting the landmark No Child Left Behind education law of 2002, now widely unpopular and criticized as unworkable and unrealistic. The White House said President Barack Obama would sign it today.

The bill would keep a key feature of No Child: the federally mandated statewide reading and math exams in grades three to eight, and one such test in high school. But it would encourage states to limit the time students spend on testing, and it would diminish the high stakes associated with these exams for underperforming schools.

The measure would substantially limit the federal government's role, barring the Education Department from telling states and local districts how to assess school and teacher performance.

Meghan Collins, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, said state officials were waiting for the law to be officially adopted before analyzing how it might affect the way they do business.

But many involved in Florida education policy did not expect the federal changes to have broad impacts in a state that launched its own school accountability program — complete with school grades — three years before No Child was passed.

"The federal government won't be dictating certain components of teacher evaluations and there will be fewer federal regulations," said Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teacher union.

"But that doesn't mean the state won't continue to micromanage neighborhood schools. Florida started off on this path before No Child Left Behind was even implemented as a federal law, and we don't think the current education leadership in Tallahassee is inclined to turn control back to local districts and school boards."

State Sen. John Legg, who chairs the Florida Senate's Education Committee, suggested that the flexibility allowed under the new provisions looks a lot like what's already in place in Florida.

The revisions put increased focus on Tallahassee "as the place where decisions, such as what to test, how often and how to use the results, are made," said Bob Schaeffer, a Lee County resident and spokesman for the national Fair Test organization.

In Washington, there was strong bipartisan support for the measure, which had been endorsed by the nation's governors, teachers' unions, chief school officers and administrators.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who leads the Senate Education Committee, called it a "Christmas present" to 50 million children across the country.

Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, said he hoped Obama "will wrap a big red bow around it . . . and send it to the children and the 3.4 million teachers who are looking forward to it."

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Alexander was a chief author of the bill along with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington — and in the House, Education Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., and ranking member, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia.

Murray, a former preschool teacher, said the work must now begin in "our schools, in our communities, in our states," to find ways to make sure that all students achieve. "We expect them to live up to that, and that's the promise of this bill," Murray said after the vote.

States and districts will now come up with their own goals for schools, design their own measures of achievement and progress, and decide independently how to turn around struggling schools. Testing will be one factor considered, but other measures of success or failure could include graduation rates and education atmosphere.

To make sure all children get a fair shot at a quality education, states will be required to intervene in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, in high schools with high dropout rates and in schools with stubborn achievement gaps — something Democrats have pushed.

On Common Core, education guidelines reviled by many conservatives, the bill says the federal government may not mandate or give states incentives to adopt or maintain any particular set of academic standards.

The Common Core college and career-ready curriculum guidelines were created by the states, but became a flash point for those critical of Washington influence in schools. The administration offered grants through its Race to the Top program for states that adopted strong academic standards for students.

The measure will end the waivers the Obama administration has given to more than 40 states, including Florida. The exemptions were granted around the more onerous parts of No Child when it became clear that requirements such as having all students proficient in reading and math by 2014 would not be met.

Three of the presidential candidates missed the Senate vote — Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, voted in favor of the bill.

No Child Left Behind passed with broad support in Congress and was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002.

No Child has been up for reauthorization since 2007, but previous attempts to renew the law have been caught in a broader debate over the federal role in public education.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.