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Why Congress Won’t Leave Behind ‘No Child Left Behind,’ Despite Hating It

The Obama administration issued its first explicit veto threat against ongoing House Republican efforts to replace the much-hated No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law Wednesday, describing Republican reform efforts as “a significant step backwards.”

The threat could mean that NCLB, despite being universally despised, will remain on the books for the rest of Obama’s presidency.

The policy brief from the Office of Management and Budget outlining the veto threat complained that the Republican bill, dubbed the Student Success Act (SSA), “abdicates the historic federal role in elementary and secondary education of ensuring the educational progress of all of America’s students, including students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners and students of color.”

What’s driving Obama’s ire? Most notably, the administration is upset about a provision that would allow states to change the allocation of so-called Title I funds. Currently, the federal government doles out Title I funds to schools with a high concentration of low-income students. Republicans want to give states the option of tethering Title I funds to individual low-income students instead, with the funds moving with the student if they start attending a charter or another public school.

The Obama administration argues that Title I portability will result in hundreds of millions of dollars being slashed from the budgets of cash-strapped, high-poverty school systems such as Detroit, Philadelphia, and Memphis.

The administration has other quibbles with SSA as well. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants any NCLB replacement to direct billions of dollars towards preschool education and funding competitive grant programs. The law would also scale back the Department of Education’s power to intervene with struggling schools.

Despite these differences, SSA already offers numerous concessions to what Democrats want. The bill keeps federal requirements that states conducts annual standardized tests in math and reading, which many conservatives sought to eliminate. Title I portability is limited to public schools, instead of being extended to private schools as well. It also consolidates several federal spending programs, rather than eliminating them en masse.

The bill is scheduled to go up for a vote on Friday, and is likely to pass without any Democratic support, much as a similar bill did in 2013. By threatening to block House Republicans, Obama is likely trying to bolster an alternative reform effort currently brewing in the U.S. Senate. There, Senator Lamar Alexander is collaborating with Democrat Patty Murray in an effort to craft a more bipartisan measure.

However, while Obama may be seeking a more moderate bill, it’s possible that his veto could end up derailing NCLB reform altogether, because it’s not clear there is any room for an NCLB update to move further towards the center. Numerous conservative groups, in fact, are already screaming bloody murder about the Student Success Act.

The Heritage Foundation was one of the first to condemn it, with education analyst Lindsey Burke telling The Daily Caller News Foundation that it represents a “missed opportunity” to approve a more conservative proposal. American Principles in Action, a center-right organization, has also complained that the law still keeps far too large of a federal footprint in education.

“In provision after provision, H.R. 5 demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the Constitution and our constitutional structure,” said APIA’s education director Emmett McGroarty in a statement. “Although it relieves the states from some NCLB burdens, it then adds others and overall sets the stage for an expanded federal footprint in our lives.”

Similarly, the fiscally conservative Club for Growth has called on Republicans to oppose the law.

“If this week’s bill was supposed to be an acknowledgement that the party is ready to return federal power to the states, then they have only given lip service to such an idea,” Andy Roth, the group’s vice president of government affairs, said in a statement. “The proposal has only modest reforms, and worse, it contains no meaningful reduction in overall spending.”

While such growing conservative opposition to the Student Success Act isn’t expected to keep it from passing the House, it signals how many conservatives already view the House’s proposal as surrendering too much to the Obama administration. If a Senate bill is revealed that eliminates Title I portability or calls for big spending increases, conservative criticism could turn into a full-fledged revolt against the party’s capitulation to the president.

If that happens, then NCLB will likely remain the law of the land for the rest of Obama’s presidency.

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