Kennedy Hints at Amending 'No Child' Law

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Citing frustration with how the Bush administration has implemented the No Child Left Behind Act, one of the law's chief congressional architects is suggesting for the first time that "corrective legislation" may be needed.

While the law has increasingly come under fire, including from the leading Democratic presidential candidates, the so-called Big Four lawmakers who took the lead in writing it—the chairmen and the ranking minority members on the House and Senate education committees—have resisted calls to amend the bipartisan legislation.

Now, however, one of those four, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is suggesting he may well push to change the law.

"He feels that corrective legislation may be needed if the administration fails to begin implementing this law correctly," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Kennedy. At a press conference earlier this month, Sen. Kennedy indicated as much in response to a reporter's question, Mr. Manley said.

Sen. Kennedy and nine other Democrats sent Secretary of Education Rod Paige a letter Jan. 8— exactly two years after President Bush signed the law—that contained a lengthy list of misgivings with how implementation has proceeded. ("Department Questioned on ESEA Guidance," Jan. 21, 2004.)

The senator requested a meeting with Mr. Paige, which was scheduled for this week, to discuss the Democrats' concerns. Mr. Manley said that any final decisions about introducing legislation would come after the meeting.

"[Sen. Kennedy] feels we're at a crossroads with No Child Left Behind," Mr. Manley said. "He's detected a lot of confusion and frustration around the country."

Asked to comment, Susan Aspey, an Education Department spokeswoman, said: "Secretary Paige looks forward to sitting down with the senator to discuss No Child Left Behind. The secretary is very much committed to implementing this bipartisan law."

Department officials have consistently said they oppose legislative changes to the No Child Left Behind Act.

Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, also signed the Jan. 8 letter to Secretary Paige, but he has stopped short of backing any move to amend the law.

"We are aware that ideas on NCLB are circulating, but Congressman Miller has not decided on any legislation and remains committed to making the law work nationally, as it is in many areas of the country," Daniel Weiss, a spokesman for Rep. Miller, said last week.

"The real problems that the administration and Republican leaders in Congress can and should address immediately without the need for any legislation," Mr. Weiss continued, "are the gross underfunding of the law and the failure to properly implement the law as written."

The two Republicans who played the biggest role in the law's passage—Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who chair the Senate and House education committees, respectively—oppose any legislative changes. (At the time the law was passed in late 2001, Mr. Kennedy chaired the Senate committee, and Mr. Gregg was its ranking minority member.)

The letter from Democrats outlined a laundry list of gripes with how the Bush administration has implemented the No Child Left Behind Act, including actions that the lawmakers charge "undermine the letter of the law."

Those include complaints about how the administration is handling dropout rates as a measure of academic progress, civil rights protections for children when it comes to providers of supplemental educational services, and the law's mandate for a "highly qualified" teachers in every classroom.

The letter said, for instance, that "department regulations allow schools to make academic progress toward their achievement targets, even if dropout rates for at-risk students are increasing."

Rural Flexibility

Meanwhile, a House Republican this month introduced his own bill to amend the school law.

The bill offered by Rep. Jim Gibbons of Nevada would allow school districts in rural areas to obtain limited waivers of certain requirements for the employment of highly qualified teachers. As of last week, it had no co-sponsors.

"Due to a limited amount of interested applicants and funds, rural schools face a tremendous challenge recruiting teachers deemed highly qualified in every subject," Rep. Gibbons said in a press statement. "My bill will give rural schools the flexibility they need and desire."

David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. Boehner, said that while the chairman does not support changing the law at this time, he is working closely with Rep. Gibbons to address his concerns.

"We think this development provides a platform to demonstrate that NCLB has more flexibility than people have generally been told," Mr. Schnittger said. "This is an opportunity to set the record straight."

Vol. 23, Issue 24, Pages 25, 29

Published in Print: February 25, 2004, as Kennedy Hints at Amending 'No Child' Law
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