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School choice, opt-out debates likely to dominate conference on No Child Left Behind rewrite

After nearly a decade of delay, congressional lawmakers are now really, really close to achieving a sweeping reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act and doing away with the statute known as No Child Left Behind.

You’re allowed to cheer if you are so inclined; many North Carolina policymakers and school leaders are. But keep in mind that Congress remains months away from the finish line, as several stark differences remain between the bills passed in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The conference committee process will soon begin, where Republicans and Democrats will have to reconcile differences between the chambers’ proposals.

What are the differences? 

I won’t go line-by-line through the 1,600-plus pages of legislation here, though the committee surely will.

The House and Senate are, for the most part, on the same page when it comes to giving states more flexibility on testing regimes. But some discrepancies remain about how to hold states and schools accountable for better performance.

Two prominent provisions included in the House’s version and not the Senate’s version are likely to cause a lot of partisan wrangling: one allowing federal Title I money (which targets schools and districts with large numbers of low-income students) to follow poor children to the school of their choice, and another removing the federal government’s ability to punish states where a large number of students opt out of standardized tests.

Hasn’t North Carolina dealt with these issues recently? 

School choice, yes, but not the same kind of school choice. North Carolina’s private-school vouchers, or “opportunity scholarships,” just survived a long legal battle; the state Supreme Court ruled late last month that the $4,200 publicly funded scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools were constitutional.

The House bill’s provision wouldn’t be a voucher system; low-income students would be allowed to choose the public school or charter school they attend, and their Title I funds would follow them.

As for the other provision, there’s no doubt that standardized assessments have made a number of parents angry. But relatively few students in North Carolina have refused to take the tests.

No North Carolina school has dipped below the 95 percent standard of test-takers currently required under No Child Left Behind, said Louis M. Fabrizio, director of data, research, and federal policy for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Therefore, the state has never been threatened with federal penalty for opt-outs.

What do North Carolina lawmakers and experts think? 

The key question surfacing on Capitol Hill on the diversion of Title I funds echoes the one our state’s lawmakers have had to answer on vouchers: Should public money be used to subsidize individual choice?

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican and member of her chamber’s education committee, supports the House bill’s policy, also known as portability. She told EdNC earlier this year that it would ensure that each low-income child receives financial assistance, no matter which school they attend.

Bob Luebke, education analyst at the Civitas Institute, said he backs any federal or state effort to bolster school choice. The high number of applicants for North Carolina’s vouchers, he said, makes clear that “parents want choice.”

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Alma Adams, on the other hand, has expressed concern that the provision would take away desperately needed funds from the most cash-strapped public schools — reiterating red flags raised by the Obama administration.

Jeffrey Braden, dean of the college of the humanities and social sciences at N.C. State University and an expert in educational psychology, said research suggests that using Title I money to increase parents’ school choice “will have very little impact on students’ academic outcomes.”

Now to the debate on too many students opting out of tests. No state or school has actually been punished financially for such a violation under No Child Left Behind — in large part because North Carolina, 42 other states, and the District of Columbia have waivers from certain provisions of the law. So, would it matter if that lever of federal power was removed?

It might, Fabrizio said. If every student could theoretically opt out of testing in a state without consequence, it might undercut the desired effect of standardized testing, he said, which is to assess students individually as well as measure schools and teachers more broadly.

Luebke said North Carolina parents should have the flexibility to opt out of tests for legitimate reasons, such as health concerns or religion, without schools or states being punished.

But allowing students to opt out more liberally, Braden said, could skew a school’s performance data. That’s especially true because wealthy, high-achieving students are most likely to opt out of tests when given the choice, he said.

When could we have a new law? 

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who is one of four lawmakers managing the conference committee, is confident that the legislation will be on President Barack Obama’s desk by the end of the year.

It’s not clear when we’ll know more about what the law might look like. One indication might be the passing margin of the two bills: The Senate’s version — the one without the portability or opt-out provisions — passed 81-17 with strong bipartisan support. The House’s version squeaked by on a 218-213 vote.

While Republicans control both houses of Congress, they can’t secure a conference committee win without help from Democrats, which suggests that the more controversial line items will have a tougher path to becoming law.

Still, a policy like Title I funding portability could become a bargaining tradeoff that Democrats might consider supporting if Republicans concede on more stringent accountability measures.

Meeting Alexander’s end-of-year deadline is possible, Fabrizio said, though he emphasized that, “the timing of the implementation is going to be critical.”

If Congress passes the law early next year and directs it to be implemented on July 1, for instance, “that’s unworkable,” he said. North Carolina and other states would need time to meet various requirements and craft well-designed testing regimes, he said.

Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015 with degrees in journalism and political science, and she is currently based in Washington, D.C. She spent four years reporting on politics and education for The Daily Tar Heel, and she has also written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bloomberg News, and several community newspapers in North Carolina.