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Education Bill in Limbo As Congress Goes Home

The Senate and House both passed versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization, now comes the task of reconciling the two.

The Senate on July 16 passed its version (Every Child Achieves Act of 2015) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. The Republican-led House narrowly passed its version (Student Success Act) July 8 on a vote of 218-213, with no support from Democrats. The ESEA was last reauthorized in 2002 during President George W. Bush’s administration as the No Child Left Behind Act.

The task now is to reconcile the two versions of the ESEA reauthorization to create a measure that President Barack Obama can sign. The conference committee charged with that task met for the first time on July 30, the day before Congress left Washington for its five-week summer recess.

Both versions of the bill would undo many of the most controversial parts of No Child Left Behind, effectively rendering it void. While reading or language arts, math and science testing would still be required, states would be able to develop or adopt their own “challenging state academic standards” and the tests for measuring whether or not students have met those standards.

Schools would no longer be judged as to whether they had met AYP (annual yearly progress) and instead states or local educational agencies would determine which schools needed improvement and what—if anything—the schools would be required to do about it.

The bills both require that test results show disaggregated data—that is, data by race, ethnicity, gender, poverty level and other criteria, which means it will still be possible to know how American Indian/Alaska Native children are doing compared with other students.

In stark contrast to NCLB, the federal government would be specifically prohibited from interfering with state and local decisions by offering incentives to encourage schools to use a particular set of standards, including Common Core standards, or assessments, such as the Smarter Balanced Assessment System.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has criticized both versions of the bill for removing so much authority from the federal government. “This bill still falls short of truly giving every child a fair shot at success…. We need to identify which schools work and which ones don’t, so we can guarantee that every child will have the education they need,” he said in a July 16 statement.

This legislation is fundamentally about civil rights. The federal government has used education as a means of furthering equal rights since 1954 when the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that the principle of “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional.

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Liz King, senior policy analyst and director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in an earlier interview with ICTMN, “Educational opportunity has been a core part of civil rights across communities for a very long time. The opportunity for communities and families to see that their children are well-educated and positioned to exercise their civil rights has been a priority within the civil rights movement for a very long time.”

Both bills contain provisions that enhance tribes’ participation in determining educational policies and decision-making. They mandate that Local Educational Agencies—school districts, cities, and towns—collaborate with Indian tribes located in their communities in developing and executing Title I grant applications and programs and they make tribes, tribal organizations and consortia of tribes eligible applicants for these grants. The Senate version includes funding for Native American Language Immersion schools and programs and provisions for improving education for Alaska Native students.

So-called “Title I portability” is expected to be one strong point of contention during the conference process. The House version of the bill would have Title I dollars follow students into whatever school their parents choose for them instead of being allocated to schools with significant numbers of students from low-income families. Obama has indicated he would veto any bill that includes this provision. The House version also includes a controversial opt-out provision that would allow states to decide whether parents could exclude their children from standardized testing.

The ESEA was supposed to have been reauthorized in 2007 but thus far it has not been, so the failed 2002 No Child Left Behind Act has remained the law of the land, mitigated to some extent by the waivers offered to states, and now tribes, beginning in 2011 when it became clear that most states would not meet 2014 benchmarks.

RELATED: Miccosukee Tribe Makes History With Waiver from No Child Left Behind

Even if this reauthorization passes in 2015, the No Child Left Behind Act will have been in effect for 13 years, the length of time it takes to get a child from kindergarten through high school.

With major changes to federal education policy so difficult to pass, this legislation could affect millions of children’s entire K-12 educational experience. What stays in, gets added or is omitted from the version that becomes law is critically important to how AI/AN children will be educated and how tribes will be able to participate in deciding educational policy for their children.

RELATED: NCLB Gets an F. What’s Next in Your Child’s Classroom?