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With House passage of conference report, replacement of No Child Left Behind is all but assured

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The final vote tally saw 181 Democrats join 178 Republicans in voting for the bill.

WASHINGTON — Rep. John Kline may now be able to retire from Congress a happy man.

On Wednesday night, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly — by a margin of 359 to 64 — to approve the Every Student Succeeds Act, the final version of a comprehensive reform of No Child Left Behind, the controversial law that has served as the foundation for federal K-12 education policy since 2002.

The vote was technically an approval of a conference report, the agreement worked out between House and Senate lawmakers to reconcile differences between the two versions of the law that each had passed this summer. But the bill has essentially cleared its last major hurdle: it now heads to the Senate, where it is virtually guaranteed to advance. It would then arrive at the White House, where officials have said the president is eager to sign it into law.

Kline, the chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has been a key player in the process. He authored the initial House version of the legislation, and also chaired the conference committee that resolved the two chambers’ differences, which were not insubstantial.

In a statement, Kline hailed the House’s vote, saying “We have a strong bipartisan solution that will replace a flawed law, improve K-12 education, and make a difference in the lives of children across the country… No Child Left Behind was based on good intentions, but it was also based on the flawed premise that Washington knows best what students need to excel in school.”

“This is not a perfect solution,” Kline said. “There never is.”

A long road

By late summer, the prospect of this Congress passing a new education law, even with so much work done, was dismal. Concerns centered around whether House conservatives would support a compromise bill more in line with the more moderate Senate bill, which received much more Democratic support than Kline’s bill. To complicate matters, a nascent conservative wing of the House GOP was on the brink of ousting former Speaker John Boehner, a key Kline ally and former Education Committee chair.

Yet, after the leadership drama settled, the conference committee — which announced its final agreement in November — seemed to offer at least one thing for various factions to like, and little for them to outright hate. Democrats, though many are worried about maintaining a federal role to ensure states remain required to help disadvantaged students, liked provisions that provided grant money for low-income schools and pre-kindergarten programs.

Republicans, many of whom felt the bill didn’t go far enough to pare back the federal role, still appreciated the significant devolution of power to statehouses. Members of both parties, above all, were eager to replace a 13-year old education law that virtually no one calls a success, and that the Obama administration had been dismantling piecemeal.

But the final vote tally, which saw 181 Democrats join 178 Republicans in voting for the bill, was even more lopsided than observers had anticipated. All of Minnesota’s representatives voted yes, and the 64 holdouts were mainly very conservative Republicans.

In all likelihood, a sight few envisioned should materialize in the next few weeks: Kline joining fellow legislators at the White House to witness Obama sign a K-12 education bill into law. Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute education think tank, is a major proponent of the bill, but in October, he put its chances of success at 25 percent, tops.

On Thursday, Petrilli sounded a different tone in an email. “Last night’s huge bipartisan vote was an enormous victory for Chairman Kline,” he wrote, “and for common sense.”

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