Friday, November 23, 2007

A juggling act on No Child Left Behind

A juggling act on No Child Left Behind
Democrats, Republicans and teachers see flaws in Calif.'s Rep. Miller's proposal to renew the 2001 education law. He's not giving up.
By Nicole Gaouette
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

October 30, 2007

WASHINGTON — Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) has never been one to back away from a brawl -- he once warned an adversary that if he wanted to fight, it was going to take a while, so he'd better bring lunch. But as Miller pushes to renew the landmark education law known as No Child Left Behind, he faces so many fights that the fate of the bill is increasingly in doubt.

As chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Miller is sparring with Republicans who see his proposed changes as an unacceptable watering down of the law's core standards.

Teachers object to his proposal to link pay to performance.

Even his fellow Democrats -- particularly freshmen who campaigned against it and members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- are giving him a hard time, largely for not doing enough to soften the law's most rigid requirements.

Some critics of the law say the emphasis on math and English testing has squeezed teaching time for history, science and other subjects. Others say that the law is too strict and punishes schools that are doing a fairly good job.

"People have a very strong sense that the No Child Left Behind Act is not fair, that it is not flexible and that it is not funded," Miller said in a recent speech. "And they are not wrong. The question is what we are going to do next."

The 2001 law, President Bush's hallmark domestic achievement, is supposed to be renewed every five years, although it remains in effect even if lawmakers fail to do that.

Democrats pledged to rewrite it this year, but time is short and political tensions are high. Congress plans to adjourn for the year in a few weeks. And some Democrats are loath to give Bush a victory on No Child Left Behind when he refused to compromise on the Iraq war.

The administration has also made clear it wants just minimal changes.

No Child Left Behind was designed to end what the president called the "soft bigotry of low expectations" by forcing schools to track data on low-income and minority students and holding the schools accountable if those pupils did not do well. Schools also have to show that all students are making adequate yearly progress in math and English, or face tough sanctions.

Miller drafted 1,036 pages of proposed changes with the committee's lead Republican, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita. But as Miller has tweaked that proposal to appeal to Democrats and teachers, he has lost Republicans.

The balance he seeks is between those who think the law's standards are too rigid and those who want them as tightly defined as possible.

A 33-year veteran of the House, Miller is known for his pragmatism, his ability to make a deal and his close ties to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), all of which may help him find an answer in the few weeks he has left.

"We're certainly not in full agreement," Miller said, mentioning talks with committee Republicans. "Not between my caucus and their caucus, not between Mr. McKeon and myself. Whether we can reach an agreement remains to be seen. We're pushing as hard as we can."

McKeon said he was hopeful that he and Miller could reach a compromise, but he expressed concern "that some provisions in the draft would weaken accountability, allowing schools to mask a lack of achievement in the fundamentals of reading and math and obscure the information provided to schools and communities."

For Miller, who has made children a focus of his career and has long advocated greater teacher accountability, working on the first No Child Left Behind bill was a natural cause. A staunch liberal, he was an odd partner for Bush, but they worked closely enough for the president to dub the burly former football player "Big George."

In the five years since Miller and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) helped write and pass No Child Left Behind, they complain, the administration has never fully funded the law in a way that would help schools meet their additional burdens. Republicans counter that few laws are fully funded.

The law has frustrated some parents and teachers who dislike its effect in local schools.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has told Miller that his draft continues to overemphasize standardized tests.

The cost, Wynn says, includes "extraordinary pressure placed on students and the loss of important instruction in music, art and other elements of a well-rounded education."

Some critics say that too many schools are sanctioned under the law. Schools that fail to meet goals for three years must offer students free tutoring or the chance to switch schools. After five years of failure, the law mandates, a school must be restructured with a new staff or new leadership or be converted to a charter school.

Miller's draft bill would broaden measurements of students and schools -- for instance, letting states measure how much students improve over a year and not just whether they meet the bar set by No Child Left Behind.

Miller also wants to expand the standards by which schools are judged beyond math and English scores -- a shift McKeon strongly opposes. Under Miller's proposal, up to 15% of an elementary school's evaluation could be based on assessments of history, science, and civics and government classes. For high schools, rates for graduation, dropouts, attendance and college enrollment could be considered too.

Some of the strictest sanctions would be relaxed under Miller's bill. For example, it would loosen a rule that puts an otherwise successful school on probation if a small group within it -- such as learning-disabled children -- fails to meet the standards.

The draft would also change the way English-language learners are evaluated, allowing them to be tested in their native language for up to five years instead of the current three years, and permitting a two-year extension for some. Republicans say this would mean a child who spoke no English could enter the public school system in fifth grade and graduate from high school without ever being evaluated in English.

Teachers unions have objected to Miller's proposal to allow high-needs school districts to give $10,000 bonuses to outstanding teachers and up to $12,500 for teachers of math, science, special education and other subjects that are short of instructors. Criteria for the awards would be developed with input from the unions.

Critics of the unions say teachers are trying to avoid accountability. The unions say Miller's plan -- which McKeon backs -- is not workable.

"You can be a better teacher than I am, but based on conditions that you have to work in, it makes it much more difficult for you to do the same job," said National Education Assn. President Reginald Weaver. "Plus, paying teachers based on student performance hasn't really made a difference in how students achieve."

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are in talks about the bill, and Kennedy hopes to begin formal discussions in the education committee in the next few weeks.

Miller, meanwhile, continues to search for a compromise that can win enough support to pass the House.

"We would be wrong to waver when it comes to the existing goals and standards of the No Child Left Behind law," he said. "We would also be wrong if we failed to respond to the serious concerns with the law raised by people who sincerely care about America's educational future."

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