Will Congress finally overhaul No Child Left Behind?

  • The Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

    The House of Representatives passed a bill to update the No Child Left Behind law on Wednesday evening, just over a day after a separate education reform bill hit the Senate floor. The twin developments raise the possibility that an overhaul of the federal government's education policies might soon reach President Obama's desk.

    No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed in 2001 as the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It expanded the federal role in education policy in several ways - by pushing states to adopt strong academic standards, by forcing states to measure student achievement on an annual basis to track whether they're meeting those standards, and by sanctioning schools that failed to demonstrate student improvement.

    The bill was credited with some successes, notably a narrowing of the achievement gap between white and minority students, but it also came under criticism from both the left and right as states and school districts struggled to meet the benchmarks it set.

    From the left, teachers unions and other education interest groups complained that the emphasis on testing placed educators under often-unrealistic expectations, forcing them to "teach to the test" rather than exercising their professional judgment. They also complained that the sanctions on failing schools were too punitive and that the government did not provide resources to help underperforming schools improve.

    From the right, conservatives complained about federal overreach, particularly the law's push for states to adopt rigorous standards. They warned that the Common Core standards -- drafted by the states in the wake of NCLB but encouraged by the federal government -- have given federal authorities too much power in a policy arena that has customarily been left to the states.

    The Senate bill introduced Tuesday would scale back the federal government's role in education, giving states more control over what kind of standards to set and how to use the annual testing to measure student performance. It's a compromise that has already won plaudits from both conservative and liberal members of the Senate, but it still faces a long road to passage. Some Senate Democrats are angling for changes to the bill to boost civil rights protections and make the education system more responsive to underperforming students.

    The House bill that passed Wednesday, for its part, is significantly more conservative than the Senate measure -- not a single House Democrat voted in favor of passage. Whether the two chambers can iron out their differences in a conference committee remains to be seen.

    Moreover, Mr. Obama's administration has already voiced reservations about both bills, threatening to veto the House's measure and pushing senators to add language to "strengthen school accountability to close troubling achievement and opportunity gaps."

    And to cap it off, the intensifying 2016 presidential election, in which a number of sitting senators are candidates, is sure to throw a monkey wrench into the process as Democrats and Republicans alike seize the opportunity to sound off on education policy.

    Here's a look at the treacherous road ahead for the education bill.