Key NCLB-Renewal Bills Withheld Until Fall
As process slows in Congress, campaign debate on law picks up.
Congress has delayed any significant action on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act until it returns from its summer recess after Labor Day.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, announced this week that his committee would not consider an NCLB bill next week, the last before lawmakers take their August break.
Instead of presenting a bill to his committee, Rep. Miller planned to give a speech July 30 at the National Press Club in Washington. In it, he was planning to tout the success of the 5½-year-old law and explain his priorities for reauthorizing it, said Tom Kiley, the congressman’s communications director. But Mr. Kiley declined to say how specific the chairman would be in the speech.
Rep. Miller had been preparing to introduce a bill to revise the NCLB law before Congress left town.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee had delayed consideration of its NCLB-renewal bill while lawmakers in that chamber worked on their plans to reauthorize the Higher Education Act and alter federal financial-aid programs for college students.
Civil Rights Letter
With committees in both chambers waiting until September to produce NCLB bills, time is starting to run out for completing the reauthorization of the main federal law in K-12 education before the 2008 presidential-primary season, which is expected to slow down legislative activity in Congress.
One issue that may have stalled Rep. Miller’s plans for committee action is whether states should be able to use multiple measures to gauge student progress under the NCLB law, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that requires annual testing to determine whether schools are doing enough to raise academic proficiency.
In a memo to freshman members of Congress, circulated on Capitol Hill in June, Rep. Miller suggested that states might be permitted to use graduation rates and “realtime classroom tests that allow teachers to adjust instruction” to meet accountability requirements under the reauthorized law. ("NCLB-Renewal Ideas Circulate on Capitol Hill," July 18, 2007.)
But that idea met with criticism from some civil rights and other advocacy groups, which worried it could weaken the law. Five groups sent a letter to Rep. Miller and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the education panel’s ranking Republican, outlining their concerns. The Washington-based groups include the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank; the Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children; the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights; the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law; and the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.
“In our experience, institutions that are held accountable for too many things are, in the end, accountable for nothing,” the organizations wrote July 13. “Worse still, a system that papers over poor reading and math performance with ‘extra credit indicators’ will deny struggling schools the additional attention, technical assistance, and financial resources that they need to improve.”
Rep. McKeon cited the letter as one reason he was reluctant to support Rep. Miller’s early drafts of a reauthorization bill, according to Steve Forde, Mr. McKeon’s spokesman.
On July 23, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told a Capitol Hill audience that she questioned whether the law should add measures other than statewide tests for accountability.
In her brief presentation to a forum convened by the Congressional Black Caucus, she said she would oppose anything she believes would “water down the ability of African American kids ... to read on grade level.”
Responding to reporters’ questions after the event, Ms. Spellings said she is not certain that states are ready to implement such complex systems. More than five years after the law was enacted, some states “still have issues” with implementing the current accountability system, she said.
Democrats on the ‘Tube’
If Congress doesn’t renew the NCLB legislation this year, lawmakers would likely pass an extension as a formality. That would keep the $23.6 billion in federal funding appropriated under the law flowing to school districts.
The delay also could foretell significant changes for the law, especially if a Democrat is elected to succeed President Bush.
In a July 23 debate at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., and in other recent forums, Democratic candidates criticized the law’s emphasis on testing and what they contend is inadequate funding for it.
For the debate, co-sponsored by CNN and the YouTube Web site, a participant identified as Randy McGirr of Trona, Calif., produced a heavy-metal-style video that declared: “NCLB was such a scam. So now tell me, sir or ma’am, would you scrap the whole thing or just revise? Tell me the truth, don’t tell me no lies.”
CNN host Anderson Cooper directed the question to just two candidates: Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Sen. Joseph R. Biden of Delaware.
“I would scrap it. It doesn’t work,” Gov. Richardson said, to applause from the audience. “It is not just an unfunded mandate, but the one- size-fits-all doesn’t work.”
Sen. Biden said he had made a mistake in voting for the law in 2001, when it passed both houses of Congress with big, bipartisan majorities. He said he had done so “against my better instinct” because he had great faith in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a leading Democratic architect of the law, which President Bush had made a top domestic priority. Mr. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate education committee, remains one of the law’s most prominent supporters.
“My wife’s been teaching for 30 years,” Sen. Biden added in his answer at the debate. “She has her doctorate in education. She comes back and points out how it’s just not working.”
While other candidates weren’t offered the chance respond to Mr. McGirr’s question, several of them have criticized the law in speeches, including several who appeared at the National Education Association’s convention this month.
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