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No Child Left Behind, Pre-K Programs Could Be On New Congress' Agenda

With Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Congress may push for change on several big education issues, including a rewrite of the law known as No Child Left Behind. But it's also clear that, even on classroom issues that seem to have bipartisan support — including Pre-K funding — Democrats and Republicans may have trouble compromising.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We've been exploring the post-election landscape, what Republican control of Congress means for several big issues. Today, education.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports on one of the major players and his ideas.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The man who chairs the Senate committee that handles education is Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. He says job one is to roll back a signature Republican initiative that increased federal oversight of public schools, the law known as No Child Left Behind.

SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER: We would propose the bill that we offered last year - and which Democrats rejected - which would transfer back to states responsibilities for deciding whether schools are succeeding or failing.

CHRIS MINNICH: The thing that Senator Alexander has really hit on is this idea that much of those decisions should be made at the state level. We'd agree with him on that.

SANCHEZ: Chris Minnich is at the Council of Chief State School Officers which represents all 50 state school superintendents.

MINNICH: However at the same time, we do run the risk of backing away too far.

SANCHEZ: And that would be a mistake, says Delia Pompa of the National Council of La Raza.

DELIA POMPA: The federal footprint in education is an important one. Many of the gains that we've made on behalf of not only Latinos, but African-Americans, children with disabilities, came about because of the federal role in education.

SANCHEZ: The dispute over that role of course is not new. Even when Republicans and Democrats appear to agree on something, they don't really. For example, the president has proposed a $75 billion plan to make preschool universal for 4-year-olds. It's a good idea, says Senator Lamar Alexander, but...

ALEXANDER: The administration's proposal I didn't like because it would have the federal government making all the rules about teachers' salaries, class sizes, staff qualifications, length of school day, the decisions that ought to be made locally.

SANCHEZ: A better approach, he says, would be to take the $22 billion the federal government already spends on early childhood education and let states decide how to spend it.

ALEXANDER: For example, more vouchers for child care.

TED SHAW: Privatize, privatize, privatize. That's an old agenda.

SANCHEZ: Ted Shaw is former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He's now at the University of North Carolina. He says the research is clear, quality preschool can close the achievement gap and yet...

SHAW: That gap continues to grow. We've left and we continue to leave millions and millions of children behind and I don't think privatizing is the answer.

SANCHEZ: Another area of contention - higher education. Every year Washington sends $200 billion to the nation's public and private colleges, mostly through the student loan program, but the Obama administration says many Americans have been priced out of college and schools aren't being held accountable. The administration's answer? A government-sponsored college rating system. Senator Alexander says that proposal is dead on arrival.

ALEXANDER: We have a marketplace of colleges and universities in the country. It's produced the best system of higher education in the world. We don't need the federal government over-regulating it with a rating system.

SANCHEZ: The greatest barrier to college is not the price, says Alexander, it's the 108-question student aid application better known as the FAFSA. He wants to whittle it down to two questions - what's your family income and what's the size of your family?

Andy Rotherham, founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting group, says problems of college access and affordability are much bigger than FAFSA.

ANDY ROTHERHAM: We live in a country where 9 percent of low-income students can expect to get a bachelor's degree by the time they're 24, compared to about almost 80 percent of more affluent students. I mean, all those problems are still the same and the election didn't change anything. It probably just changed a little bit the political alignments of how we're going to talk about those issues.

SANCHEZ: Translation - expect lots of talk about education, but little collaboration.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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