Trying to strike a bipartisan chord, the Senate worked Thursday on a major revision of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, a day after a Republican-led rewrite just barely passed the House.
The Senate bill would narrow the federal role in the nation's public schools by giving states and local school districts more control over assessing the performance of schools, teachers and students. It keeps the law's requirement for annual math and reading tests but prohibits the federal government from requiring or encouraging specific sets of academic standards, such as Common Core.
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As the Senate considered amendments, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., appealed to his colleagues to work together and not saddle his bipartisan bill with changes that would imperil Democratic support.
The Senate rejected a proposed amendment by Republican Steve Daines of Montana that would have allowed states to opt out of No Child requirements completely but still receive federal money in the form of block grants. It was co-sponsored by nearly a dozen other Senate Republicans, including presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.
"This amendment is well-intentioned, unnecessary, won't pass and undermines the bipartisan agreement that we have reached," said Alexander, who spent months negotiating the bill in committee with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.
The Senate was expected to continue debating the bill next week.
Thursday's appeal for unity was in sharp contrast to a day earlier when the House cleared a Republican-written bill by a 218-213 vote. Not one Democrat supported it, and 27 Republicans voted against it.
The House bill sponsored by Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline is more conservative than the Alexander-Murray legislation.
It dramatically lessens the federal role in education policy by transferring more power to the states on accountability for school performance. It also allows federal money to follow low-income children to public schools of their choice — something not in the Senate bill. The White House had threatened to veto the Kline bill.
"House Republicans have chosen to take a bad bill and make it even worse," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. "Instead of supporting the schools and educators that need it most, this bill shifts resources away from them."
No Child Left Behind has been up for reauthorization since 2007, but lawmakers haven't been able to agree on an update. Most Republicans and Democrats agree that it needs to be re-worked, but they differ on how to do that.
Since 2012, the Obama administration has granted requests from 42 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia for waivers from some of the law's strictest requirements because it became clear they wouldn't be met.
On Thursday, the Education Department announced that it was renewing waivers for Delaware, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Puerto Rico.