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Everyone hates No Child Left Behind, and Congress is never going to change it

Obama with Rep. John Kline, who leads the House committee on education, in 2011.
Obama with Rep. John Kline, who leads the House committee on education, in 2011.
Pool/Getty Images
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.

This week, House Republicans tried to rewrite No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that's years overdue for renewal, with a very conservative bill. But at the last minute Friday, they decided not to vote — in part because the bill wasn't conservative enough.

The setback for the House bill tells us two big things about education policy. First, it signals that House Republicans aren't just far to the right of where they were when No Child Left Behind was passed — they could be to the right of where they were just two years ago. At the very least, they don't see reauthorizing No Child Left Behind as a goal significant enough to be worth compromising on their conservative principles.

Second, the whole saga suggests that Congress is unlikely to get anything done on education anytime soon. It's getting harder to find any bipartisan agreement on the issue. Which is why No Child Left Behind is almost certain to survive Obama's presidency untouched.

The latest developments in No Child Left Behind

When Republicans took Congress last November, rewriting No Child Left Behind was singled out as an area where they could find common ground with President Obama.

No Child Left Behind is years overdue for renewal. The law's deadline for making all students proficient in reading and math has come and gone, and the Obama administration has created a complicated system for waiving the laws' consequences for states that take other steps to reform K-12 education.

Granted, expecting a bipartisan compromise on its renewal was always a little optimistic. (One warning sign: Republican leadership never seemed to put No Child Left Behind on their priority lists.) But Sen. Lamar Alexander, the new chair of the Senate committee that handles education, is a former US Education Secretary and a moderate Republican who's known for working across the aisle, and policy wonks could lay out a plausible path to a compromise.

But that analysis didn't figure in House Republicans. The bill the House was about to vote on today was very similar to a bill the House passed in 2013 — it drastically reduced the role of the federal government in holding schools accountable for students' test scores and capped federal education spending. The Obama administration was opposed and threatened to veto it.

But, on the other side, Heritage Action and the Club for Growth argued that the bill didn't go nearly far enough — because it maintained some federal role in education. And in a week when House Republicans were also fighting over spending on the Department of Homeland Security and the Conservative Political Action Conference was holding its massive annual meeting, that conservative message resonated. House leaders struggled Thursday night to get enough votes for the bill, according to Politico, and postponed the Friday vote.

Even if the House bill eventually passes, this is bad news for overhauling No Child Left Behind. The window for a bill that was conservative enough for Congressional Republicans but able to get Obama's signature or enough help from Democrats to withstand a presidential veto was always very small. Now it's looking nonexistent.

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