GOP House education chair hopeful he can get bill passed to update No Child Left Behind

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WASHINGTON — The Republican chairman of the House education committee said Wednesday he was blindsided by conservative opposition to his rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law and will take the next week to try to clear up misconceptions.

GOP House leaders late last week abruptly canceled a scheduled vote on the bill when it became uncertain whether it would pass given conservative concern about the federal role in education. House Democrats widely opposed the bill, but a similar one had passed in 2013 with much less consternation by rank and file Republicans.

The bill by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, would keep annual testing requirements in schools, but it gives states and districts more freedom in the way they spend federal money and set rules to identify and fix failing schools. It prohibits the federal education secretary from demanding changes to state standards or imposing conditions on states in exchange for a waiver around federal law — a provision that shows opposition to the Obama administration's encouragement of the Common Core education standards that spell out what reading and math skills students should master at each grade.

It also eliminates many federal programs, creates a single local grant program and allows public money to follow low-income children to different public schools.

Kline said he was taken by surprise by the opposition he says appears to have been fueled largely by a blog that said the bill would solidify the use of the standards and insert government control into private schools. Kline said the bill would do neither. He said opposition from the Heritage Action for America and Club for Growth also contributed to members' concerns.

In the chaos last week surrounding funding the Department of Homeland Security, Kline said the priority was rightly placed on getting the department funded over the education bill.

Kline said he's hopeful the bill will come up for a House vote the week of March 16 after a House recess, and he still hopes Congress will be able to send a bill to President Barack Obama this year.

"I think that we've come a long way," Kline said. "I've talked to a number of our members who didn't understand what the bill did and were responding to some really bad misinformation that had been coming out."

In the Senate, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee's senior Democrat, have been working to carve out a bipartisan proposal to update the law.

The bipartisan, President George W. Bush-era law signed in 2002 sought to close significant gaps in the performance of poor and minority students and their more affluent peers. It mandated annual testing in reading and math for students in grades three to eight and again in high school. Schools that didn't show growth faced consequences.

Under it, all students were to be on grade level in reading and math by 2014.

Recognizing that wasn't doable, the Obama administration in 2012 began allowing waivers around some of the law's more stringent requirements if schools agreed to certain conditions, like using college- and career-ready standards such as Common Core. The standards are a political issue in many states, because they are viewed by critics as a federal effort even though they were developed by U.S. governors.

Democrats say Kline's bill would abdicate the federal government's responsibility to ensure that poor, minority, disabled and non-English speaking students go to good schools and that billions of federal education dollars are spent wisely. The White House threatened to veto the bill, calling it "a significant step backwards."

Conservatives were upset that amendments weren't allowed on provisions their group supported that included eliminating federal testing mandates, allowing states to opt out of the law and allowing public money to follow low-income students to private school, said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America.

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Follow Kimberly Hefling on Twitter: http://twitter.com/khefling

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