WASHINGTON — A top Senate Democrat rolled out his plan Tuesday to revamp the main federal education law, but it immediately drew fire from civil rights groups that argued it would ease pressure on schools to provide quality education to all children, regardless of race or income.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, detailed provisions of his bill to reauthorize the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, four years after Congress was due to renew it. He claimed bipartisan support, but the panel’s top Republican did not endorse it Tuesday.
“When we last rewrote the basic law, no one had an iPhone. Facebook did not exist,” Harkin told reporters. “The world has changed a lot in that time and we need to update this law to make sure that every child receives a great education.”
Under Harkin’s bill, the federal government would no longer require all students to meet achievement goals, a cornerstone of the current law. Instead, Harkin proposes to require that schools show students are making academic progress.
States have been complaining about the current law’s sharply escalating performance demands, culminating in the goal that 100 percent of students show proficiency in reading and math by 2014 or their schools will face serious sanctions.
Educators say the pressure of trying to reach 100 percent proficiency has created an unhealthy focus on standardized tests, with a narrowing of curriculum that leaves less time for subjects beyond math and reading.
“We’re moving into a partnership mode with the states rather than the federal government saying, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that,’ ” Harkin said.
But civil rights groups called that naive, and said setting goals for all students and requiring schools to meet them is the only way to guarantee that children who are poor, disabled or speak English as a second language will get the help they need to reach the same achievement as affluent children.
Harkin’s bill “takes us backwards,” said Raul Gonzalez of the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Latino civil rights group. “It’s a radical reversal of the federal role in education.”
For decades, states were free to set their own goals but failed to narrow achievement gaps between students of different races and income groups and failed to deliver on the promise of educational opportunity for all, he said.
“This feels like a betrayal of low-income kids, of kids of color,” said Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an advocacy group.
Harkin said he wanted to include goals in the bill but that he compromised in a year of negotiations with Sen. Mike Enzi, Wyo., the committee’s ranking Republican. Harkin called the bill a bipartisan effort, but Enzi did not take part in the presentation to reporters. An Enzi spokesman said the Republican “continues to work” with Harkin and looks forward to “bipartisan” discussion of the bill next week in committee .
The bill was released as the Obama administration, frustrated with the lack of movement in Congress, prepares to use executive authority to excuse states from some of the law’s requirements.