BATTLE GROWS OVER RENEWING LANDMARK EDUCATION LAW
New York Times -- April 7, 2007
by Sam Dillon
When President Bush and Democratic leaders put together the bipartisan
coalition behind the federal No Child Left Behind Act, they managed to
sidestep, override or flat out ignore decades of sentiment that
education is fundamentally a prerogative of state and local government.
Now, as the president and the same Democrats push to renew the landmark
law, which has reshaped the face of American education with its mandates
for annual testing, discontent with it in many states is threatening to
undermine the effort in both parties.
Arizona and Virginia are battling the federal government over rules for
testing children with limited English. Utah is fighting over whether
rural teachers there pass muster under the law. And Connecticut is two
years into a lawsuit arguing that No Child Left Behind has failed to
provide states federal financing to meet its requirements.
Reacting to such disputes in state after state, dozens of Republicans in
Congress are sponsoring legislation that would water down the law by
allowing states to opt out of its testing requirements yet still receive
On the other side of the political spectrum, 10 Democratic senators
signed a letter last month saying that based on feedback from
constituents, they consider the law's testing mandates to be
"unsustainable" and want an overhaul.
"It's going to be a brawl," said Jack Jennings, a Democrat who as
president of the Center on Education Policy has studied how the law has
been set up in the 50 states. "The law is drawing opposition from the
right because they are opposed to federal interference and from the left
because of too much testing."
The law was passed in President Bush's first year in office by large
bipartisan majorities - 87 to 10 in the Senate and 381 to 41 in the
House. Today it enjoys the support of a powerful, if unlikely, political
threesome - Mr. Bush and the Democratic leaders of the education
committees, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and
Representative George Miller of California.
But many members of Congress have heard years of complaints about the
law from educators and parents in their states, and even lawmakers who
support its goals believe that it is headed for a makeover, or that its
revision could be postponed until after the 2008 election.
No Child Left Behind greatly expanded the federal role in education with
hundreds of directives. It requires states to test students in
elementary and middle school every year and bring them to proficiency in
reading and math by 2014. It also imposes sanctions on schools where
scores consistently fall short of achievement targets.
The Bush administration has itself suggested some new flexibility for
states, proposing to give school officials more discretion in using
federal money, along with changes that would extend federal power, like
one requiring additional testing in high schools. Mr. Kennedy and Mr.
Miller also want changes, including a strengthened emphasis on getting
qualified teachers into classrooms with the neediest students and
channeling federal help to schools that the law identifies as struggling.
Foes and supporters of the law dispute whether the federal government's
role should be more robust or diminished. There are also disputes over
how much money should go to education, how to create an accountability
system that accurately identifies failing schools and whether to soften
the 2014 deadline.
A private bipartisan Commission on No Child Left Behind has called for
significant strengthening of the federal role, including requiring all
states to build a statewide computer system capable of tracking every
student's academic performance, at a cost of billions.
"The theme to the Commission's proposals is 'Do more, and do what Uncle
Sam tells you to do,' " two former Education Department officials,
Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli, wrote recently. Mr. Finn
served under President Ronald Reagan
and Mr. Petrilli under Mr. Bush
In contrast, a bill sponsored by Representative Peter Hoekstra,
Republican of Michigan, and co-sponsored by 50 conservative Republicans
in the House, including the minority whip, Roy Blunt of Missouri, would
greatly weaken Washington's control by allowing states to opt out of the
law's testing requirements without losing federal money. Two Republican
senators, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, have
introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
Whether the law can emerge strengthened or survive in any recognizable
form depends on the alliance of President Bush, Senator Kennedy and
The two Democrats have fought Mr. Bush over the Iraq war, tax cuts and
other policies. But as the ranking Democrats on the education committees
in 2001, they helped forge the law, negotiating big increases in
education financing. They have since accused the Republicans of
providing less money than promised.
Still, in an interview, Mr. Miller expressed impatience with lawmakers
who, he said, failed to understand the law's strategic importance to the
"You can get into a lot of petty politics, but there's a mandate coming
from across the country for us to improve this law," Mr. Miller said.
"There's no other way for Congress to go. The C.E.O.s, the venture
capitalists, all of them have commented on the need for America to
improve its educational system. It'd be a major shock if we reneged on
our federal leadership."
Mr. Miller, who hopes to get legislation through committee before the
summer, added, "This should not be underestimated by a bunch of
Lilliputians trivializing the issue."
As he works to build consensus, Mr. Miller will contend with opposition
to the law's testing requirements from teachers' unions influential with
Democrats. He can count on support from business and civil rights groups.
The influential superintendents in the Council of the Great City
Schools, which represents the nation's 66 largest urban districts, have
prepared 180 recommendations, including the adoption of uniform national
academic standards, starting with math and science, said Michael
Casserly, the council's executive director. "We're coming at our
recommendations from an overall position of support, not one of trying
to bring down the law," he said.
Among Republicans, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is working to
minimize defections. This week, she has been stumping for the law in
Arizona where all four House Republicans have signed on to Mr.
Hoekstra's bill. Ms. Spellings's press secretary, Katherine McLane,
said: "We're optimistic about getting N.C.L.B. reauthorized this year."
Still, many state, suburban and rural district superintendents dislike
the law, and their views are influential with Congressional delegations.
Tom Horne, a Republican who is Arizona's superintendent of public
instruction, has feuded with Ms. Spellings over a ruling that gives the
state's schools one year to teach immigrant students English before
schools are accountable for their scores on exams, which under Arizona
law must be given in English.
Ms. McLane said the regulations "give states significant flexibility
while still holding them accountable for the progress of
English-learning students." But Mr. Horne said the department should
make an allowance for Arizona, facing an endless flow of new immigrants.
"You cannot run a complex, continentwide education system through
micromanagement by people living in an ivory tower at the Department of
Education in Washington," Mr. Horne said.
Utah has rankled under the law's requirement that educators have the
equivalent of a college degree in every subject they teach. Few teachers
want to serve in Utah's remote towns, where authorities often ask a
teacher with a math degree to pitch in and teach, say, geography.
"That's how rural America works, and Washington doesn't get it," said
Patti Harrington, the state superintendent of public instruction.
Representative Rob Bishop, who represents Utah's rural western half,
said he shared her view.
Representative John B. Larson, Democrat of Connecticut, voted for the
law in 2001. Today he has many grievances with it, including his belief
that Connecticut has had to spend millions of its own money to meet the
testing requirements. Like many in his state, he said, he would like the
law to be repealed. "But I respect Miller and Kennedy and believe it can
be fixed," Mr. Larson said.