What almost was a story of the establishment whipping conservatives under the table reversed itself Friday morning when House leaders pulled a vote on a bill to tweak the nation’s largest education law.
Congressional Republicans have been swiftly moving a rewrite of No Child Left Behind, making it the first major legislation to come up for a vote under their new, historically large majority. Conservative groups who have staked out clear positions on issues such as replacing ObamaCare were extremely quiet on these education proposals, causing consternation among grassroots education activists across the country.
The Family Research Council, Americans for Prosperity, education committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and education scholars at the American Enterprise Institute supported the Student Success Act, or HR 5, cosponsored by House Education and Workforce Chair John Kline. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association proclaimed itself neutral.
The Club for Growth and Heritage Action opposed HR 5, along with the band of mothers whose interest in Common Core had informed them to beware bipartisan initiatives read the 600-page bill and were shocked at its blatant disregard for states’ rights and the Constitution (naïve, yes—but in a good way). They pestered their representatives on Twitter and by phone, but most received word that the bill was “conservative” enough and therefore going to pass.
The House had passed the Student Success Act in 2013, after all. Its repeat passage under a historic Republican majority in a new Congress was a mere formality. So, what changed?
The Rules Committee Tries Politics as Usual
Last Wednesday, the House Rules Committee considered whether to allow dozens of amendments to ride with HR 5 when it went out for a floor vote. They allowed approximately two-dozen moderate Republican amendments and a similar number of Democrat amendments. The committee dropped three conservative amendments, however, meaning they would receive no vote.
These amendments would have given states the power to opt out of federal mandates entirely while still receiving their citizens’ federal education dollars in return for promising to uphold civil-rights protections and public reporting (the A-PLUS amendment); ended federal mandates that require states to test every child who attends public schools on math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school; and made federal funds for poor kids, known as Title I funds, portable to not just any public school, as the act does, but also to any private school, if their state allowed it. The first two would have drastically reduced federally led education central planning.
“I don’t know if those [three amendments] would have passed or not, but there’s value in having these ideas on the House floor, having debate on it, and having those votes recorded,” Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida), who cosponsored the APLUS and testing amendments, told The Federalist. “I think most conservatives look at NCLB and view it as a mistake, so to not allow us to have our voice heard on some of these things was very disappointing.”
The committee’s refusal to allow a vote on those amendments moved Heritage Action to place a no vote on the Student Success Act into its representative ratings.
“If leadership is going to block conservative amendments and give Democrats 25 amendments, that’s a pretty discouraging thing in general,” said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, on Thursday. “This isn’t even just the conservatives are being screwed over, it’s broader than that. [The message is that] anyone who dares to challenge a committee chairman or offer a contrasting or even complimentary view will get nowhere.”
New Ideas Deserve a Debate
He noted that 91 current members of the House Republican Conference have cosponsored a version of A-PLUS, including Kline and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana). Whoever in leadership wanted a moderate bill would have gotten votes from conservatives if they had at least been allowed to vote on some conservative amendments, Holler said. They could have covered their butts before constituents by saying they had voted for provisions to make HR 5 more conservative, but those hadn’t passed with the rest of the bill.
The rest of the bill was a sort of NCLB lite. It removed several onerous, counterproductive provisions, such as the “maintenance of effort” mandate forbidding school districts from ever spending less on special education, for any reason, and the “highly qualified teacher” provision in which more evidence-free credentials stamped a teacher “highly qualified.” It consolidated something like 90 duplicative programs, but cut none. Neither did it cut federal education funding, which is at its highest level in history, despite the massive federal deficit and several studies demonstrating that more spending does not improve student achievement.
Most onerous and contentious of all, the bill extends the federal mandate that states test all public-school students in grades 3-8 and once in high school on math and reading, although by now there is wide agreement and evidence that these mandates reduce instruction in all other subjects and homogenize curriculum. We also now can compare student results on different tests, meaning that now is a time ripe for letting schools pick tests that match their philosophy and curriculum. It also curiously requires state legislatures to, each year in their state budget, agree that federal education law supersedes state law (see sections 6561 and 6564, ferreted out by Erin Tuttle of Hoosiers Against Common Core, who is surely one of the few people to have read the bill without being paid to do so).
But Politics as Usual Fails to Bench Conservatives
Word got around quickly, however, that the voting version of the Student Success Act wasn’t as conservative as the multiplying press releases and memos from Kline’s office insisted. And by that point the #HR5 hashtag was full of angry grassroots conservatives demanding that their representatives vote against the bill. A statement from Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski at 10:30 p.m. Thurday night to a band of in-state activists is representative:
After careful consideration, I have told leadership that I am a NO on HR 5 because I don’t believe there are enough amendments to garner my support for this bill. At this point, the legislation doesn’t go far enough to keep federal authority away from our schools.
By Friday noon, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had pulled the bill from its scheduled floor vote.
“There isn’t really an identifiable positive constituency that’s for this bill [HR 5] in most of our districts,” DeSantis said Friday afternoon. “Most of the parents that are activists in education don’t like it, and the teachers unions don’t like it either. So there is that divide in terms of where we are inside the beltway, where the Beltway establishment tended to support it, and the grassroots did not.”
Kline and education subcommittee Chairman Todd Rokita (R-Indiana) blamed the bill’s postponement on a lengthy defense spending bill debate. But DeSantis and myriad other reps publicly confirmed that the bill was really pulled because it had dipped below the number of votes necessary for passage, primarily because it lost Republican, not Democrat, support. That’s what the Associated Press reported, citing unnamed sources:
In a political embarrassment for Republicans, House GOP leaders on Friday abruptly cancelled a vote on a bill to update the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law after struggling to find support from conservatives.
How Conservative Is ‘Conservative Enough’?
In attempting to quash conservative education proposals, GOP leadership was probably thinking two things. First, they need a moderate bill if they want something that might become law. In the Senate, where the Republican majority is tighter, Alexander has been promising “bipartisanship” with every statement about rewriting NCLB, and he almost certainly has to get some Democrat votes to get any bill through the Senate. Democrats have made a lack of “bipartisanship” a central talking point against HR 5. And, obviously, any bill needs President Obama’s signature to become law, and he and Education Secretary Duncan have been already spiking Republican ideas.
Second, the NCLB rewrite was the first major bill of this session, so a perfect time to set the tone, especially for the 40 GOP freshmen. They need to learn that, for anything to “get done,” compromise and moderation are in order, not principled stands based on policy ideas that clearly contrast with Democrat proposals.
“That’s been our frustration with what the House has done in the past four years,” Holler said. “You’re going to enter into some negotiation with [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid and Barack Obama, but at least show some contrast with the prescriptive federal role that the Democrats and some Republicans from the Bush era unfortunately support. There is a mindset that the federal government has an active role to play in primary education, it would have been good to see some of these amendments like A-PLUS just to see where members are. We don’t know where members are on issues alike giving states more control.”
While GOP leadership may not wish to give voters hard evidence about where their representatives stand on the federal role in education, voters increasingly disfavor a significant federal role in education. The 2014 results for the annual Gallup/Pi Kappa Delta poll on education, for example, found that only 15 percent of respondents thought the federal government should have the greatest influence on education policy, a decline from the 2007 results. Fifty-six percent thought local school boards should take the lead. This is precisely opposite how U.S. schools work nowadays.
“I’ve been privately telling a LOT of House leadership staff they badly miscalculated the mood of the people,” Will Estrada, HSLDA’s director of federal relations, wrote in an email. “Since Obama already said he is going to veto HR 5…and since hardly any Dems are going to vote for it anyway, the House GOP should have just put up a shut down the department of ed bill instead of this!”
Time to Ditch Consensus for Statesmanship
The “bipartisan consensus” that gave us NCLB no longer exists. The congressional GOP leaders who were there for that consensus, where Democrats and Republicans are mostly indistinguishable, may want to revive it, but they should reconsider. Americans have moved on. That bipartisan consensus has given everyone hell for the past 12 years. Now, Americans are looking for new ideas. Their allegiances are open. Whoever can present a proposal clearly different from NCLB and clearly responsive to America’s cynicism about federal omniscience will win, big time. It will take a fight, but it’s one worth fighting with a smile. The leaders who can do that deserve their positions. The policy-relativist poll-sniffers do not. A leader doesn’t hide in the crowd. He stands out front and scouts the best path forward.
For not in Congress, but out here in flyover country, a bipartisan consensus on education is emerging. That consensus building from ground up suggests it’s time to genuinely roll back the federal role and return self-determination to individuals and localities. The emergence of Common Core has accelerated this consensus, as have the Obama administration’s utterly unhinged executive actions. Rather than giving states NCLB “flexibility,” the administration’s NCLB waivers have made it obvious that when the feds say, “How about you spend your local taxpayers’ resources rewriting your education policies according to our policy preferences that unfortunately fly in the face of common sense and hard research?” states ask, “Would you like that with sugar on top, sirs?”
People out here in the hinterlands are tired of hearing our representatives tell us they actually represent Washington. We have ideas about education, and how we want our children brought up, and we’re tired of fighting the thicket of useless federal mandates we paid to have stand in our way. Federal involvement in education has led to a quadrupling of taxpayer education spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars, no less) but no measureable improvement in high school graduates. The evidence likewise suggests that NCLB has done nothing for minority children, whom politicians and advocacy groups cite as a major justification for federal involvement. This legacy of failure indicates it’s time to stop repainting the merry-go-round.
Correction: This article has been edited to reflect that Heritage Action did oppose HR 5 well before last week.