WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday approved a sweeping bill to revise the contentious No Child Left Behind law, representing the end of an era in which the federal government aggressively policed public school performance, and returning control to states and local districts.
No Child Left Behind, which had strong bipartisan backing when it passed in 2001, was the signature education initiative of George W. Bush, who said the failure of public schools to teach poor students and minorities reflected the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
That law ushered in high-stakes testing to measure student progress in reading and math between the third and eighth grades. Schools were required to make every child in the nation proficient in those subjects by 2014, as measured by standardized tests. Schools that failed to hit targets along the way were subject to federally required sanctions, ranging from tutoring to school closing in the worst cases. Over time, the law became anathema to both the right and the left, and it became clear that the sanctions as well as the goal of proficiency by 2014 were unworkable.
The overhaul passed by the House on Wednesday, 359 to 64, jettisons No Child’s prescribed goals and punishments, and allows states and school districts to set their own goals and to decide how to rate schools and what to do with those that under perform.
After months of compromise and negotiation, the bill earned nearly unanimous approval from a conference committee of House and Senate members two weeks ago, and is expected to be passed by the Senate next week. A White House official said Wednesday that President Obama plans to sign it when it reaches his desk.
Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who is chairman of the House Education Committee, said the existing law had left the federal government “micromanaging” the education system.
“No Child Left Behind was based on good intentions, but it was also based on the flawed premise that Washington knows what students need to succeed in school,” he said in a statement.
The bill passed Wednesday retains the annual testing requirements in math and reading. Schools must also continue to report the results by students’ race, income and disability status.
Some said they were uneasy about whether the new law could exacerbate uneven schooling across the country.
“The real question is what authority is left to the federal government to intervene should the states in one way or another fall short of what the hopes are?” said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and a former New York state education commissioner. “We all are concerned that we not go to a place where based on where you happen to be born or which state you’re in, you face very, very increasingly different opportunities.”
The path to Wednesday’s vote was long and arduous. Even as recently as last summer, educators thought that partisan and often acrimonious bickering would stymie any movement.
No Child officially expired in 2007. As virtually every school in the country came to be labeled failing, subject to sanctions, Congress repeatedly tried to revise the law, but lawmakers could not agree on a revision. Democrats and Republicans wrangled over just what role the federal government should play in public education. Democrats wanted guarantees that the law would protect racial minorities and those from low-income families, citing its roots as a civil rights bill, initially passed in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Republicans wanted states and local communities to be free to direct policies with little federal intervention.
In 2013, House Republicans passed a version of the bill that would have allowed states and districts to develop their own ways of rating schools and working with struggling ones. But Democrats flatly opposed that legislation, and Mr. Obama threatened to veto it, despite his support for changing the one-size-fits-all approach of No Child Left Behind.
For the last three years, the Obama administration has given waivers from the law’s most onerous conditions, including that every child in a school must be deemed proficient in reading and math by 2014. In its waivers, the administration added conditions that states tie performance ratings of teachers to student test scores, and that states adopt rigorous academic standards. Many states responded by adopting the Common Core, and conservatives chafed at what they saw as federal overreach.
Although the new bill requires that states take action to improve schools in the bottom 5 percent of all schools in the state as well as high schools that graduate fewer than two-thirds of students, the bill does not impose any specific action if those goals are not met.
States are required to use test scores and other academic measures to rate schools but can also include other components like student surveys. The bill specifically prevents the federal government from requiring that states evaluate teachers at all, much less use test scores to rate them, and says the education secretary cannot dictate any specific academic standards to states.
Arne Duncan, the education secretary, said the new bill would “reduce overtesting and one-size-fits-all federal mandates.”
Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the Education Committee, said the bill would usher in a new period of experimentation in schools as communities are released from federal control.
“Basically we’re back to an era that encourages local and state innovation rather than Washington telling you what to do,” said Mr. Alexander, who was one of the architects of the legislation, along with Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington.
Most education advocacy groups, including both teachers unions and the National School Boards Association, as well as the National Governors Association, have signaled their support for the bill. Civil rights groups, which fought hard to keep some requirement that states intervene in the lowest-performing schools as well as schools that consistently failed to educate racial minorities or poor students, cautiously welcomed the bill.
But they expressed concerns that without sufficient federal intervention, numerous children would still be left behind.
“This certainly makes us nervous,” said Liz King, director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The lesson of the civil rights movement and community is that the federal government is the defender of vulnerable children and we are worried that with new state and local authority, vulnerable children are going to be at risk.”
But others said states and local communities were better able to meet the educational needs of students. “This now means that instead of directing your attention to Washington, you now need to direct your attention to Albany and Trenton and Columbus,” said Andy Smarick, partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and research group.
“Over the past 10, almost 15 years,” he continued, “we’ve so focused on reading and math scores and this is the real opportunity to make sure we’re capturing the things that are important, whether it’s grit and persistence or school culture or parent engagement, and the only way to do that is to give power back to the states. You cannot centrally manage an innovative, creative accountability system from Washington D.C.”
Emmarie Huetteman reported from Washington, and Motoko Rich from New York.