Kennedy Bill Would Give States, Districts Leeway

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Leading Senate Democrats on education policy, expressing dismay with how the Bush administration has handled the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, have sought to take the matter into their own hands with a set of legislative changes unveiled last week.

The Democratic bill addresses a range of issues, such as giving states greater say in setting the qualifications for providers of supplemental educational services-including private tutoring-under the law, and easing the demands on districts that face the law's school choice mandate but lack spaces for student transfers. The bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was one of the four primary congressional architects of the federal law.

"[O]n top of the broken promises to provide schools the resources they need to get the job done right, the administration has undermined the efforts of schools to comply with the law, and crippled reforms through its ineffective implementation effort," Sen. Kennedy contended in introducing the bill on Sept. 13. It was co-sponsored by seven other Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

The bill didn't exactly come out of the blue. In January, Mr. Kennedy and other Democrats sent a lengthy letter to Secretary of Education Rod Paige outlining many of the same concerns.

"Its legislative prospects here are dim, but the mere fact that it had to be introduced is a real indictment of the Bush administration and how they've handled this," said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank aligned with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Mr. Rotherham, a strong backer of the law, said the bill addresses "some pretty common-sense stuff."

But Susan Aspey, a Department of Education spokeswoman, said the Democrats' effort "sounds like more special-interest-driven politics. The fact of the matter is that in just two short years under No Child Left Behind, schools across the nation are showing significant academic improvements."

The 'Dustbin'

The plan also came under fire from an influential Republican lawmaker: Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the chairman of the education committee.

"This was cobbled together from policies pulled from the dustbin and the reject pile," said Gayle Osterberg, a spokeswoman for Sen. Gregg. "Most unfortunate is the effort to roll back school choice, a cynical attempt to indefinitely sentence students to failing schools."

Under the Democratic bill, the obligation for districts to provide school choice under the No Child Left Behind law would be subject to all applicable health- and safety-code requirements. The plan also would authorize grants for school construction and renovation to help districts that have difficulty accommodating new students because of overcrowded schools.

The bill would clarify that states may require providers of supplemental education services under the No Child Left Behind law to meet the same qualification requirements as public school teachers. The Education Department has barred states from doing that.

In addition, the bill would require that all states offer veteran teachers an alternative approach to meet the law's mandate on "highly qualified" teachers. The law allows states to develop a "high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation," or housse, for veterans to demonstrate subject-matter competence without going back for more schooling or passing a subject-matter test. Sen. Kennedy said 15 states still don't offer that option.

The plan would create a grant program to help states design and improve assessments for students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency. And it would require states to report to the federal government graduation-rate data, including breaking that data down by various subgroups of students.

It also reiterates an earlier proposal by Mr. Kennedy to allow states to apply retroactively recent federal rules changes issued by the Education Department. Those changes have made it easier for some schools to make adequate yearly progress, as required under the law. (See "Bill Would Make ‘No Child’ Flexibility Retroactive," June 23, 2004.)

"It's important to acknowledge what this bill does not do," Sen. Kennedy said on the Senate floor. "It does not make fundamental changes to the requirements under No Child Left Behind. Those reforms are essential to improving our public schools."

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Kennedy, said the Democrats do not expect action on the bill this year.

"This was done to lay down some markers," he said, and "highlight the concerns."

Vol. 24, Issue 04, Pages 31, 34

Published in Print: September 22, 2004, as Kennedy Bill Would Give States, Districts Leeway
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