WASHINGTON — A long-awaited rewrite of federal education law appears headed for final congressional approval.
The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to end debate on the makeover of the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act, setting up a final vote Wednesday. The sweeping legislation would give the states greater control over the nation's public schools but still maintain annual testing to gauge student progress.
The federal government would see its influence in education policy substantially limited and would no longer be able to tell states and local districts how to judge the performance of schools and teachers.
Under the legislation, which easily passed the House last week, states and districts would come up with their own goals for schools, design their own measures of achievement and progress, and decide how to turn around struggling schools. That's instead of Washington mandating what critics had dubbed a one-size-fits-all approach to governing the country's 100,000 public schools.
The White House has indicated that President Barack Obama would sign the measure into law.
"It's the biggest step toward local control of schools in 25 years," Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said in an interview. He was a chief architect of the bill along with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.
"Keeping higher standards and real accountability comes from communities and states and not from Washington," said Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary.
Murray, a former preschool teacher, said the legislation would still hold under-performing schools responsible, but would leave it to the states to decide how to do that. Murray also praised the bill for including a key priority for her — a focus on early childhood education.
"For the first time ever, our federal education law will recognize the importance of early learning with the grant program that we have put in place. It's a very good beginning step for our nation," Murray said in an interview.
The grants program would use existing funding to help states improve quality and access to preschool.
The No Child Left Behind Act passed with broad support in Congress and was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. It was praised for its main intent, which was to use annual standardized tests to identify achievement gaps in learning and failing schools in need of support.
But it was later criticized for a heavy-handed federal approach that imposed sanctions when schools came up short in testing progress — leading teachers, administrators and others to worry that the high stakes associated with the tests was creating a culture of over-testing and hurting classroom learning.
No Child has been up for reauthorization since 2007, but previous attempts to renew the law have been caught in a broader debate over the federal role in public education.
The new bill, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, would keep the key feature of No Child: annual reading and math testing of children in grades three through eight and once in high school. And it would require schools to report the results by students' race, family income, and disability status.
It would also encourage states to set limits on the total amount of time kids spend taking tests and would end federal efforts to tie test scores to teacher evaluations.
But instead of federal mandates on what targets schools needs meet, states would be responsible for working with schools and local districts to develop achievement goals and accountability plans. States, however, would be required to intervene in the nation's lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, in high school "dropout factories," and in schools with persistent achievement gaps — something Democrats insisted on.
On Common Core, reviled by many conservatives, the bill says the Education Department may not mandate or give states incentives to adopt or maintain any particular set of academic standards.
The Common Core college and career-ready curriculum guidelines were created by the states, but have become a lightning rod for those worried that Washington has too much influence in schools. Since 2012, the administration has offered grants through its Race to the Top program for states that adopted strong academic standards for its students.
The bill also ends the waivers the Obama administration has given to more than 40 states, exemptions granted around the more onerous parts of No Child when it became clear that requirements such as having all students proficient in reading and math by 2014 would not be met.