Sen. Chris Murphy speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate about ISIL.

Washington – Opposed by powerful teachers unions but backed by civil rights groups, legislation sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy aimed at boosting school accountability in a proposed education overhaul failed in the Senate Wednesday.

The amendment would have been included in a massive new Senate education bill that would replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The new bill would end the practice of tying federal funding to school performance, specifically “adequate yearly progress,” a measure by which schools, districts, and states are held accountable for student performance under No Child Left Behind.

But civil rights groups are concerned the Senate bill, called the Every Child Achieves Act, does not do enough to make schools accountable for the failing of the most vulnerable students, minorities and those with disabilities.

Murphy attempted to amend the bill to boost accountability, but his measure failed on a 43-to-54 vote. Under Senate rules, Murphy’s amendment needed 60 votes to pass.

He had a tough opponent. Teachers unions pushed back against the legislation, saying it reinstated adequate yearly progress, known in their jargon as AYP. But it was Republican votes that killed the amendment. The only Republican to vote for it was Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.

On the Senate floor before the vote, Murphy said his amendment “learns from the mistakes of No Child Left Behind.”

“We’re saying just simply identify your achievement gap and come up with a way to fix it,” he said.

His amendment would have required local school districts to come up with a plan to identify failing groups of students and failing schools and another plan on how to help them.

It would require testing to be part of the plan used to identify schools and students in trouble, but would allow a number of other indicators, including attendance and English proficiency, to grade performance.

If a school did not improve in three years, the state would be required to step in with its own plan.

Murphy said his amendment kept the federal government out of the process and maintained the spirit of the education bill in boosting the autonomy of states and local school districts.

Several state organizations including the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, and the Connecticut Association of Schools supported Murphy’s effort. They said federal education law “long overdue for a rewrite — was first enacted 50 years ago to protect the needs of America’s most vulnerable children.”

The White House also says it wants more accountability in the Senate education bill.

But, in a letter this week, the National Education Association warned senators the vote on Murphy’s amendment would be weighted in the powerful organization’s annual report card.

“After 13 years of witnessing firsthand the negative consequences that No Child Left Behind’s one-size-fits-all approach to accountability has had on students, our members strongly oppose more of the same,” the NEA letter said. “We believe the Murphy amendment would continue the narrow and punitive focus of NCLB and over identify schools in need of improvement, reducing the ability of states to actually target help on schools that need the most assistance to help students.”

The letter also said NEA members “are deeply concerned the amendment would mark an entire school for intervention if a single subgroup misses goals for two consecutive years – precisely the approach that misidentified schools under the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) provision of NCLB.”

The NEA, however, said it supports the Senate education bill which it called “a paradigm shift where states create a system for evaluating students’ progress and meaningfully differentiate schools using a range of indicators measuring school success or student supports, disaggregated by student subgroups.”

The Connecticut Education Association said the legislation “makes significant improvements to current law and shifts the focus away from testing and punishing schools, so educators can get back to helping students learn.”

Under the Senate bill, the federal government would be barred from determining how states evaluate teachers, or student learning, outside of the mandated math, language arts and science scores.

Dozens of amendments, both Republican and Democratic, have been voted on since the Senate began debate on the education bill last week

A final vote on the bill is expected Thursday. If approved, the Senate bill would be reconciled with a more conservative education overhaul passed by the House last week. Murphy hopes the issue of accountability will be revisited during those negotiations.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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