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Published in Print: May 2, 2007, as Bush Pressing His Case on Renewal of NCLB

Bush Pressing His Case on Renewal of NCLB

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In the complicated politics of the No Child Left Behind Act, one thing hasn’t changed since Congress first passed the law: President Bush’s desire to get a bill passed.

Over the past month, Mr. Bush has been actively highlighting what he sees as the successes of the law and the need to chart its course beyond the end of his second term. But many political figures—including some Republicans—doubt that the president will have the same influence over the second generation of the law that he had over its creation.

“The No Child Left Behind Act is working,” Mr. Bush said last week at a charter school in the Harlem section of New York City. “These test scores are on the rise. Accountability makes a significant difference in educational excellence.”

The April 24 event followed two White House meetings earlier in April with parents, business leaders, and civil rights advocates to bolster support for the president’s reauthorization proposals. What’s more, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings traveled to Minnesota, Arizona, and New Mexico in the past month, often meeting with local business groups and soliciting their support for the law.

At a time when Mr. Bush is approaching the twilight of his presidency and his approval ratings are in the mid-30s, many observers say the president’s proposals to expand school choice to include private schools and access to charter schools are unlikely to sway the Democratic majorities in Congress.

“The reauthorization of No Child Left Behind is going to be driven by Congress,” said Kansas state Sen. John Vratil, a Republican. “I don’t see the administration leading the charge.”

Last week, for example, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a high school reform plan that emphasizes improving graduation rates in the schools with chronically high dropout rates. It does not include the Bush administration’s proposals to expand NCLB testing across all high schools to measure students’ readiness to enter college or the workplace.

President Bush’s power diminished when Democrats regained control of the House and the Senate last fall, and it continues to slide as he concentrates on the war in Iraq and his approval ratings hover near the lowest points in his presidency.

“It has everything to do with his current situation,” said Mr. Vratil, who was among a group of state legislators who met with White House aides in March to discuss the state lawmakers’ response to administration’s reauthorization plan.

But others suggest that Mr. Bush may have a significant say in the future of the NCLB law because of the unusual politics surrounding the bill. With conservative Republicans rallying around an alternative and Democratic interest groups advocating structural changes to the law, Mr. Bush’s support could be pivotal in bolstering Democratic leaders who want to retain the law’s goal of dramatically increasing student achievement, said Patrick J. McGuinn, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University, in Madison, N.J.

“The fundamental question is whether the bipartisan consensus has fallen apart or not,” he said. “The preservation of the original bipartisan consensus is key.”

Legacy Bill

President Bush has listed reauthorization of the NCLB law—whose passage was a centerpiece of his first-term domestic agenda—as one of his top priorities for the final two years of his presidency.

The House and Senate education committees have held a series of hearings on topics related to the law in recent months. Authorization for the 5-year-old law, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, expires on Sept. 30, but Congress often extends programs for a year or more while it weighs broader changes.

The law requires states to test students in reading and mathematics annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and to determine whether districts and schools are making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, toward having all students proficient in those subjects by the end of the 2013-14 school year. The law also contains a raft of other mandates, in areas such as teacher qualifications, and includes the Title I program for disadvantaged students, the Reading First initiative, and many other federal K-12 programs.

With the goal of finishing a bill before the 2008 presidential primaries begin in January, the House and Senate education committees are preparing bills to renew the law. Aides on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee are starting to write portions of the bill. The goal is for the committee to debate a bill by summer, said Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the HELP committee’s chairman.

The House Education and Labor Committee has not set a timetable for moving its reauthorization bill, said Aaron K. Albright, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., that panel’s chairman.

For such a complex bill to work through the legislative process this year, it would have to clear the education committees this summer, experts say.

Completing the reauthorization this year is “an enormous personal interest of the president,” Karl Zinsmeister, Mr. Bush’s chief domestic-policy adviser said in an interview. “He talks about it all the time. He’s very determined to put energy and resources into it.”

How much influence the president will have over the legislation is unclear, however.

In New York City last week, Mr. Bush promoted the success of the Harlem Village Academy Charter School. When the school opened in the 2003-04 school year, 20 percent of its 5th graders met New York state’s math standards. Last school year, 96 percent of 5th graders met the standard.

“We ought to make it easier for officials to reorganize failing schools into charter schools,” Mr. Bush said, according to the White House transcript. “We just cannot allow the status quo to exist when we find failure.”

Under the president’s NCLB proposal, school districts would be allowed to rely on federal legal authority to open new charter schools, even if their states had reached caps on the number of charters set by state law. The administration’s plan also would create $4,000 vouchers for students who attended schools that failed to make AYP targets for five consecutive years. Those students could use the vouchers to transfer to other public schools or toward tuition at private schools.

But key Democratic lawmakers have said they won’t support such proposals for private school choice, and they are pursuing other options for turning around poorly performing schools. ("Bush Offers ‘Blueprint’ for NCLB," Jan. 31, 2007.)

High School Differences

Top lawmakers also aren’t following the president’s lead in other areas of education policy. For example, Sen. Kennedy and a bipartisan group of members of his committee introduced a bill last week that would provide federal grants to the high schools with the highest dropout rates.

The high school reform bill—introduced by Sen. Kennedy and other members of the HELP committee—would authorize $2.4 billion in grants to help such schools and would define ways to measure their progress in addition to their AYP results. Schools receiving the money would set a goal of improving their dropout rates and would have to intervene with students starting in 9th grade to ensure they stayed in school until they earned their diplomas.

But the bill doesn’t include what the Bush administration sees as vital components of high school improvement. The administration wants to set aside a portion of new Title I money for high school efforts and add two years of testing students’ preparedness to enter college or the workforce.

Such differences don’t mean that President Bush won’t have any influence over the future of the NCLB law, analysts say.

In 2001, Mr. Bush and his advisers worked closely with Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller to generate bipartisan support for the No Child Left Behind legislation that Congress passed late that year and that the president signed in January 2002.

In his speech at the Harlem school last week, Mr. Bush stressed the potential for continued bipartisanship. He mentioned the two key Democrats by name but referred to their two GOP committee counterparts at the time—Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio and Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire—simply as “two Republican colleagues of theirs.”

“We work well together,” the president said.

Rep. Miller and Sen. Kennedy have said repeatedly that they support the major provisions of the law, such as annual testing and the goal that all students reach proficiency by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

If President Bush presents a unified front with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, the group could preserve the important elements of the law, said Mr. McGuinn of Drew University.

“That may have the effect of keeping the core of the law intact,” he said.

The central ingredient, Mr. McGuinn added, will be the amount of money available for Title I and other NCLB programs.

Although Title I spending increased by a total of 40 percent in the first three years after the law’s enactment, funding for the program has leveled off since.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, are unhappy because they believe that the administration has been inflexible in the way it has carried out the law, he added.

More than 50 House Republicans and six GOP senators are supporting an alternative bill that would end the federal government’s oversight of accountability and give the states wide latitude in deciding how to track students’ academic progress.

“There’s a belief among Democrats and Republicans that … the Bush administration has reneged on its end of the bargain” to increase spending on NCLB programs, Mr. McGuinn said.

PHOTO: President Bush visits the Harlem Village Academy School in New York City last week. Mr. Bush used the visit to promote his plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act.
—Gerald Herbert/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 35, Pages 20,22

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