No Child Law Faces Medley of Changes

 

If President Bush wants the next version of his signature No Child Left Behind education law to carry his imprint, the White House will have to compromise with a host of disparate groups seeking changes in the 5-year-old act.

As Congress starts considering complaints from school districts, governors and others, chances are that a holdup in revising the law as scheduled this year could leave the future of Bush's domestic legacy to his successor.

States are among the chief stakeholders clamoring to leave their stamp on a new version of the education law, which has riled some state lawmakers and educators to the point of rebellion over its costs, penalties and unprecedented federal oversight of school policy.

"Give me some more flexibility because I think we could do this better," said Wisconsin Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster, representing the Council of Chief State School Officers , before a joint congressional hearing March 13.

The nation's governors are gathering suggestions from each other so they can recommend a set of changes to Congress.

"We're doing something unique," said Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri (R), co-chairman of the National Governors Association 's lobbying effort with Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D). "The education issue is front and center now and so … it's important to take a key leadership role."

The federal law, which Congress passed in 2001 with bipartisan support, mandates annual testing in reading and math for grades 3-8 and once in high school with the goal of making all students proficient in the subjects by 2013-14. Schools that fail to make annual progress face a variety of penalties, from being forced to pay for tutoring to being taken over by the state.

The law is up for reauthorization this year, meaning Congress has a chance to change it. However, experts polled by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation , an education think tank, say it's unlikely that No Child Left Behind will be reauthorized until after the presidential election. Until it's renewed, the law will continue in its current form.

Critics have decried the law for its focus on testing, federal intrusion into what traditionally has been a local issue, and what they say is an unrealistic goal of proficiency by 100 percent of students.

The Bush administration, however, says No Child Left Behind has already had a positive impact. The 2005 results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress , a test given to a cross-section of students in every state, showed that 9-year-olds were better readers than at any point over the last 30 years. The act also has drawn attention to the achievement gap between white students and their minority peers.

The costs of carrying out the mandates are a particular sore point with states. According to the National Education Association , No Child Left Behind over the last five years has cost $40 billion more to carry out than the federal government has allotted. The U.S. Education Department maintains the law is adequately funded. Congressional Democrats are calling for an infusion of more cash during reauthorization.

The act also has been slammed because a school can fail even if just one subgroup of students, such as minorities or students with disabilities, fails . This issue has led to confrontations with the federal government, the most recent in Virginia, where seven school boards led by the one in Fairfax County have vowed to defy the U.S. Education Department and give English-proficiency tests to certain English-language learners for another year instead of grade-level reading tests. The education department has warned the districts they're in danger of losing federal funds.

States have rebelled against No Child Left Behind almost since its inception. To date, 23 states have or are considering bills to opt out of the law, according to Communities for Quality Education , an advocacy group that tracks state actions on the act. Lately, however, the majority of state action has been to pass resolutions calling on congressional delegations to amend the act during reauthorization.

"It's gone from open revolt on the part of some states to more of a simmering resentment about too many federal requirements and too little federal money," said Jack Jennings, the president and chief executive of the Center on Education Policy , a research organization that has monitored the law's effects.

Other perceived shortfalls of the education mandate can be seen in the myriad solutions offered by different groups. The independent, high-profile Aspen Institute Commission on No Child Left Behind , headed by two former governors, called for an expansion of the federal role. Among its 75 recommendations: States should adopt stronger standards based on voluntary national standards, and teachers should be rated based on how well their students perform on tests.

The Forum on Educational Accountability , a coalition of more than a hundred groups including the country's two largest teachers unions, took a different tack. It wants to shorten the law's reach by scrapping the test-based accountability system to focus more on teacher training and parent outreach.

A significant dose of protest has come from the president's own party. On March 15, 52 U.S. House Republicans introduced a bill to allow states to opt out of the act without penalty. "It is about accountability to parents, about parents holding local schools, districts and states accountable versus bureaucrats in Washington," said U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the bill's lead sponsor. "Get the heavy hand of federal government off of education."

At the state level, the main changes that groups representing the states seek is more local control over deciding whether a school has made progress, and more flexibility to meet the law's requirements.

The White House recommendations for the law include tweaks, such as differentiating between schools that fail to make progress by just a few students or by several, as well as major changes, such as spending $300 million on vouchers that students at failing schools can use to go to private schools.

Most observers - even critics - agree that the law eventually will be renewed because its intent is admirable.

The two ranking Republicans on the House and Senate education committees support re-authorization, and the Democrats in charge of Congress support the law and are open to expanding it - minus the GOP-favored vouchers but with more money.

"If we're going to require more of schools, let's help get them the resources to do the job," U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings at an appropriations subcommittee hearing March 14. "I don't see that in your budget."

 
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