WASHINGTON -- House Republicans passed a bill Friday to reduce the federal role in public education and cede back to states decisions about how to deal with failing schools, how and whether to evaluate teachers and how to spend much of the money sent by Washington to educate poor, disabled and non-English speaking students.
It marks a significant departure from No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that set federal goals for academic achievement and penalties for schools that fell short of those goals, as well as prescriptions for steps that states must take to improve failing schools.
No Democrats supported the bill, which passed by a 221-207 margin, with 12 Republicans voting with the Democrats. It marked the first time in a dozen years that either chamber of Congress approved a comprehensive bill to update federal education law.
Republicans argued that states and local school districts are in the best position to decide how to educate children, and that a decade of federal control has hamstrung teachers and school leaders.
"States and school districts have been clamoring, clamoring for less federal mandates," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the bill's lead sponsor. "We should not tie the hands of teachers and school officials."
But Democrats said that without federal oversight, some states will return to a time when they failed to do much to educate poor, disabled and non-English speaking students.
The bill would freeze education spending at sequester rates instead of restoring federal dollars to pre-sequester levels, which means public schools would receive $1 billion less next year.
While its passage marked a victory for Republican leaders, the bill's future is cloudy. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto it, and Senate Democrats have crafted their own version that retains much of the current federal oversight of K-12 public education.
Public education has largely been a bipartisan issue in Congress; Friday's vote was the first time that major legislation was moved on a party-line vote.
In a raucous, lectern-pounding speech, California Rep. George Miller, ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce committee, who led opposition to the GOP bill, argued that the measure would harm the nation's most vulnerable children. When Mr. Miller was advised that "the gentleman's time has run out," he shouted back, "No! You know whose time is running out? Childrens' time!" -- which sparked a slow clap in the chamber.
The GOP bill would update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, created by Congress in 1965 to distribute federal dollars primarily to help children who are poor, disabled or English language learners. Those dollars represent about 10 percent of funding for public schools; local communities and states provide the rest.
The current version of the law, known as No Child Left Behind, expired in 2007, but Congress has struggled to agree on an update.
No Child Left Behind sets conditions and requirements for every public school receiving federal funds to educate poor students and those with special needs. The law defines academic progress and stipulates sanctions for schools that don't meet that progress. It also dictates specific improvement strategies that the states must adopt for their weakest schools. Underpinning the law is a belief that states that receive billions of federal dollars each year must be made accountable to Washington.
The GOP bill takes a different tack, returning power to the states. It would retain the No Child Left Behind requirements that schools test students annually in math and reading from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But states would set their own academic standards, decide whether schools are meeting them and determine what -- if anything -- to do about underperforming schools.
Democrats say Mr. Kline's bill would gut education dollars for poor students at a time when a record numbers of U.S. children are living in poverty, weaken the accountability of schools serving low-income, minority and special-education students and allow states to ignore their worst schools instead of improve them.