Montana’s senators both waded into the debate on nationwide education legislation last week.
The U.S. Senate has taken up a revision of No Child Left Behind known as the Every Child Achieves Act, which chips away at the federal role in education but continues the reading and math tests mandated by the Bush-era law.
Sen. Steve Daines proposed to let states opt out of NCLB requirements without losing federally funded block grants, but the amendment was shot down.
An amendment from Sen. Jon Tester reinstating the possibility of funding for grant programs targeting Native American education passed. He also hopes to revive his proposal to scale back the frequency of standardized testing.
The bill is expected to be peppered with amendments this week before it’s voted on; Tester said that he supports the bill as it stands, while Daines said he won’t decide until he sees the final product.
Proposals from the Democrat and the Republican both reflect the growing emphasis on local control of education policy.
“Quite frankly, NCLB did not work for Montana, anywhere.” Tester said. “I thought it was a wreck.”
Daines’ amendment would have allowed states to opt out of federal requirements and still receive federal block grants, which could be spent largely at states’ discretion.
“It really helps expand local control of our schools,” Daines said, putting money “closer to the classroom.”
The amendment was supported by 44 Republicans, while all Democrats and nine Republicans voted against it.
It was co-sponsored by conservative heavy-hitters like Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz, both presidential candidates. But Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, who’s championing the larger bill, spoke against the proposal.
“This amendment is well-intentioned, unnecessary and won’t pass and undermines the bipartisan agreement that we have reached,” Alexander said.
In an interview Friday, Daines continued to push the changes, which would have hamstrung federal oversight.
“I would rather have Montanans deciding what students needed,” he said. “A Montana solution is going to look different than a California solution.” He argued that state officials would still be held accountable for their actions on a local level.
While Daines’ amendment was sweeping, Tester’s Native American grant proposal was more narrow. It reinstated grant programs for Native American schools that were excised from the original bill.
However, the programs haven’t been funded for several years, and there’s no guarantee they’d get money anytime soon.
“You’ve gotta have the authorization to get those programs funded,” Tester said. “We can have a fight about how much money we give them later.”
Native American students are the only demographic group that hasn’t seen meaningful gains in reading and math in the past decade, and reservation schools often grapple with chronic absenteeism, poorly trained teachers and poorly equipped classrooms.
“It is a proven fact that (education) can bring people out of poverty,” Tester said. “Things like continuing education for Indian Country teachers are important.”
Alexander urged a no vote, again emphasizing the bipartisan nature of the bill.
“These programs haven’t been funded for 20 years for good reason,” he said, arguing that federal programs should be consolidated and that other programs could provide the same services.
All voting Democrats and 13 Republicans, including Daines, supported Tester, passing the amendment 56-41.
Tester also proposed an amendment that would scale back standardized testing to once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school, a system popularly known as grade-scale testing.
There’s no guarantee the proposal gets a vote, much less passes.
“We’ve got to assess the support for it,” Tester said. “Not all of those amendments are going to get votes. There’s too many of them.”
Tester previously introduced a bill in April that would have implemented grade scale testing, which drew wide support from Montana education officials.
He also was involved with an amendment that requires federal education officials to seek input from local school officials before making decisions, which was unanimously approved. It doesn’t force federal officials to follow any local recommendations.
The Senate bill is expected to have a more realistic chance of becoming law than a bill that narrowly passed by the House and has been panned by federal education officials.
Indeed, Alexander’s objections to the Daines and Tester amendments seemed to focus on maintaining a bill acceptable to both parties.
“It’s a very good bill,” Tester said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s very good.”