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Congress is closer than ever to getting rid of No Child Left Behind

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Congress has been working all year on replacing No Child Left Behind, the outdated, widely reviled federal education law that's been overdue for reauthorization since 2007. And now it's looking like it'll actually happen.

Education Week's Politics K-12 reports that House and Senate negotiators from both parties have reached a deal, and that the compromise bill could come up for a vote in both houses shortly after Thanksgiving.

Students would still be tested every year in third through eighth grades — the central feature of No Child Left Behind. But the compromise would roll back the federal role in education in other ways, giving states more leeway in setting goals for student achievement and limiting how much future education secretaries will be able to do to change education policy singlehandedly.

The House and Senate both passed their versions of a bill this summer. But it seemed for a long time like the process would stop there: The House version was considerably more conservative, and even the Senate bill didn't contain provisions the Obama administration considered essential.

The compromise, according to Education Week's Alyson Klein, is mostly based on the Senate bill, although it's strengthened some of the language about holding schools accountable for the performance of minority students. Some smaller federal programs will be turned into a block grant for states, fulfilling a key request from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce's Republican chair, Rep. John Kline. And while money for expanding pre-K programs will remain in the bill, the top priority for many Senate Democrats, it will be administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Education Department.

The bill still has a fine tightrope to walk between House Republicans and the White House

It's notable that House and Senate negotiators were able to reach a compromise. The formal conference committee deliberations on the bill start Tuesday.

But the Senate bill that their agreement is based on was a compromise too — and that's why it sailed through the Senate with a healthy number of both Republican and Democratic votes. The problem is that the House and Senate have very different ideas of how much compromise with Democrats is acceptable.

The House barely passed its own, much more conservative version of a No Child Left Behind revamp earlier this year, yanking the bill off the floor at the last minute when it didn't have the votes before returning to the issue later.

While Kline won some concessions, including the block grants and a pilot program that could explore changes to the school funding formula, he is also retiring this year and had a vested interest in getting the bill overhaul done.

The question is whether new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan will be able to corral his caucus into voting for a much more liberal bill than many of them want. The bill could be an early test: if it passes, it's an accomplishment for Congress that solves a problem that has lasted for years. But it's far from certain that it will pass.

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