11/29/2014

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National & World

GOP divided on rewrite of 'No Child Left Behind'

WASHINGTON (AP) - Conservative Republicans don't think a GOP rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law does enough to reduce Washington's influence. Moderates are warily eying proposals that would expand charter schools' role. Those intraparty differences appear to be blocking the bill's momentum.

It's just the latest example of the fractured Republican membership in the House, where the party has a majority but often stumbles over internal disagreements.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor visited a Washington public charter school Tuesday and pledged his support for such programs that compete with traditional public schools for students and dollars. The Virginia Republican also pledged to make it easier for public charter schools to attract taxpayer dollars through an amendment to the No Child Left Behind rewrite.

Cantor's nod was an attempt to win over his caucus' conservatives, who have groused that the revisions to the George W. Bush-era law still put too much emphasis on centralized education programs and don't offer enough freedom for such startup schools.

"We intend to bring this to the floor as early as this week," Cantor said of the bill after touring a charter school a few blocks from the Capitol.

"I think we will have success in getting Student Success Act across the floor because of the reform nature of the bill," he added when reporters pressed him for a timeline.

Cantor hasn't yet scheduled a vote on the rewrite, which would scrap large swaths of the previous law in favor of greater local controls and severe reductions to the Education Department's oversight role.

Party officials said a vote could come as early as Thursday but also cautioned the Republicans would not rush it if they weren't sure they had the support. It could be pushed to next week or later if House leaders were unconvinced it could pass with just Republican votes.

The bill is a more conservative proposal than the one Bush signed into law and eliminates dozens of school improvement programs. It gives state and local officials the power to implement reforms and explicitly bars Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his successors from encouraging states to implement national standards known as the Common Core.

"Washington bureaucrats who have never visited a school in Alabama shouldn't be making choices about my child's education," said Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala.

The bill also sends states money in a block grant to teach English-language learners, students from poor families and rural students. States could decide which students would benefit most from those dollars.

But that hasn't proved enough for some, including Cantor. He has introduced an amendment that would essentially attach to each student's book bag that child's federal dollars. If a student switches from a public school to a public charter school, so, too, would the dollars.

"Charter schools are public schools," Cantor said after watching students in a summer program dance for him and helping a student on his writing assignment.

Cantor's proposal is an attempt to win over conservatives, who want parents to have more choices. The change is similar to a proposal Mitt Romney outlined in 2012 as he ran for president.

But Cantor's amendment excludes private or religious schools, which some Republicans have proposed be eligible for tax dollars.

Cantor's proposal was unlikely to win over moderates, who worry too much of a shift from traditional public schools would only lower their quality.

In near unanimity, Democrats are expected to oppose the measure, which they have called the "Letting Students Down Act."

"That has been a continuing ongoing effort by Republicans to pretend they are doing something while cutting funding necessary to accomplish what they say they want to do," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

"We believe this is a bad bill that goes in the wrong direction," he added. "We believe clearly there is a need to address in a positive bipartisan fashion the shortcomings of the No Child Left Behind."

The conservative Heritage Foundation, led by tea party giant and former senator Jim DeMint, has said the bill doesn't do enough to eliminate Washington's role and still prescribes too many requirements.

At the same time, Republican Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey and Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah have each introduced measures that would allow states to opt out of student testing. Others have been pushing for greater flexibility for private or parochial schools.

A Senate panel has already completed its work on a rewrite of No Child Left Behind. It, too, limits the Education Department's role and lets states write their own plans to improve schools. Unlike the GOP proposal, the secretary of education retains his approval role.

A vote of all senators has not been scheduled. Aides expect it would be autumn, if not later, before it makes its way to the full chamber.

Even if Cantor were to win approval of his amendment, it's not clear charter schools could accommodate any more students as quickly as he would like.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimates that wait lists for desks in their programs approached 1 million names during the 2012-13 school year, up from 610,000 a year earlier. That increase in wait time comes even as another 275,000 new students enrolled in charter schools.

Twenty-nine charter schools reported waitlists of more than 2,000 students, according to the group.

At the Two Rivers Charter School, where the Republican leader visited, there were 1,840 applications for the coming school year's 32 open slots, according to the school.

In the District of Columbia, where 43 percent of students are in the charter system, the wait list is 22,000 names deep. Washington is second only to New Orleans in the size of its charter system.
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