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Tennessee legislators want more state control under No Child Left Behind rewrite

From left: Reps. Harry Brooks and John Forgety lead a state education panel discussion in Nashville about the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
From left: Reps. Harry Brooks and John Forgety lead a state education panel discussion in Nashville about the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Caroline Bauman

A rewrite of the sweeping federal No Child Left Behind law has Tennessee lawmakers asking if passage would give states more power over their schools.

Kicking off a two-day study session Wednesday on K-12 schools in Tennessee, a panel of House legislators quizzed a staff member for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander on the bipartisan bill co-authored by the Tennessee Republican and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

“Does this decrease federal intrusion, and increase opportunities for state innovation?” asked Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), chairman of a House education panel.

“The goal of the Senate bill is to have less of a ‘national school board,’ less (U.S.) Department of Education involvement,” said Evann Freeman, a Nashville-based spokesman for Alexander. “You still have accountability, you still hold states accountable, but the states can implement their programs that they feel best work for that state.”

A House version of the rewrite was narrowly approved last week, and a Senate version known as The Every Child Achieves Act passed Thursday.

The Senate version would retain standardized testing, which is the signature feature of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind, but would give states more leeway to set goals for their schools and decide how to address schools that don’t meet them, thus curtailing the federal government’s role.

Approved by Congress in 2001, No Child Left Behind established a stringent school accountability regimen and highlighted disparities in student learning. In Tennessee, it did not increase the number of state-mandated tests, but it did require the state to use test results to make decisions on everything from tutoring services to school closures.

Though No Child Left Behind was enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support, it has lost national favor across party lines and the nation and failed to reach its goal of having every child test on grade level in reading and math by 2014.

If approved, the Every Child Achieves Act could lead to a finalized law this fall, although the Obama administration does not support the current bills because of a lack of accountability measures, said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Alexander has shaped Tennessee schools in the past. As governor of the state from 1979 to 1987, he implemented higher standards, introduced teacher evaluations and championed a merit pay plan to reward the state’s top teachers.

During Wednesday’s legislative panel, only Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Memphis) was concerned about a potentially smaller federal role in education. She said the federal government might have a better understanding of how to prepare students for the global marketplace than local lawmakers.

Others said they wish Congress would change part of the current law that does not permit GEDs to be counted in a state’s graduation rate.

“That’s federal government overreach,” said Rep. John Fogerty (R-Athens). But, he continued, “this (proposal) is much better than what we have now.”

The study panel is scheduled discuss the Basic Education Program on Thursday, which dictates the amount of state funding provided to local districts. The system increasingly has frustrated local government leaders who say the state is underfunding the true cost of education in Tennessee.

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