For all the discord over the No Child Left Behind Act, supporters and critics agree on one thing: It should be fixed, and quickly.
Now it’s looking increasingly likely that Congress won’t make much progress in addressing the law’s flaws this year, endangering the prospects that the task will be completed before President Bush leaves office.
Efforts to revise the law are mired in backroom negotiations in both the House and the Senate and show no signs of gaining the momentum necessary to ensure completion of the reauthorization in 2008.
With Congress’ agenda filled with other tasks, including a potentially protracted fight with President Bush over spending on education and other domestic programs, it will be difficult for lawmakers to meet their self-imposed goals of ensuring passage of NCLB bills in both the House and the Senate this year, followed by a compromise version the two chambers can approve in early 2008.
“It is unlikely that we will be able to get a bill off the House floor this year,” Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in an e-mail. “However, we continue to work hard on the legislation, and we continue to meet with Republicans and education organizations.”
In the Senate, there is more optimism about passing an NCLB bill in 2007.
“We’re negotiating [and] still hopeful it can get done this year,” said Melissa Wagoner, the spokeswoman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Despite wide agreement that the NCLB needs revision, negotiating which changes to make will not be easy.
Lawmakers are “trying to find the center … in a way that preserves what’s meaningful in the law but doesn’t lose what makes it worthwhile,” said Gary M. Huggins, the director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind, a private, bipartisan panel organized by the Aspen Institute that proposed a long list of changes to the law in February. “That’s a heavy political lift.”
But, Mr. Huggins added, it’s important that Congress make progress on the reauthorization soon. He and other supporters of the law acknowledge that its accountability rules need to be tweaked, such as by using students’ academic growth over time, rather than comparisons of different cohorts of students passing through a given grade, to gauge schools’ and districts’ progress.
Significant events this year for reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act:
• Jan. 8: President Bush marks the fifth anniversary of signing the law by meeting with the chairmen of Congress’ education committees and urging them to produce a bill to renew the law this year.
• Jan. 24: The day after the president’s State of the Union address, the Department of Education releases its “blueprint” for NCLB reauthorization, proposing to give vouchers to students in persistently low-performing schools.
• March 13: The Senate and House education committees hold a rare joint hearing on general issues facing the NCLB law. Throughout the spring and summer, both panels individually hold hearings on specific issues such as accountability, teacher quality, and supplemental educational services.
• July 30: In a speech at the National Press Club, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee, says the law “is not fair, not flexible, and is not funded.” He says he wants his committee to approve a reauthorization bill by the end of September.
• Aug. 28: Rep. Miller and his Republican counterpart release the first installment of a draft bill to reauthorize the measure, covering Title I of the law. A draft bill covering other sections is released Sept. 6.
• Oct. 15: President Bush says he would veto any NCLB bill that would “weaken” the law’s accountability requirements.
• Nov. 1: The month begins with no formal committee action on the next version of NCLB and little time left on the congressional calendar in 2007. Political experts say it would be difficult for Congress to complete reauthorization while the political world is focused on the presidential nominating process.
SOURCE: Education Week
If such changes aren’t made soon, he and others predict, too many schools may be unfairly tagged under the federal law as needing improvement.
Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress in raising achievement in reading and mathematics, whether for students overall or certain subgroups, face increasingly tougher sanctions under the law.
Many school officials at the local level and their representatives on Capitol Hill want more significant changes to NCLB than Mr. Huggins does, and they too want Congress to act soon to amend some of the law’s rules and align them with states’ accountability systems.
“At times, it’s very frustrating operating under the dual system that’s been established” under the federal law and Texas’ own legislation, said Randy Mohundro, the superintendent of the 700-student DeLeon Independent School District, about 80 miles west of Fort Worth.
What’s more, Mr. Mohundro said, the law’s requirements for assessing students with disabilities and English-language learners virtually ensure those students’ failure.
“We’re causing kids to fail tests that they’re not ready to take,” he said.
At the beginning of the year, President Bush discussed the future of the law with the chairmen and Republican leaders of the House and Senate education committees. They all agreed that they would work toward reauthorizing the law.
Although funding authority for the law technically expired Sept. 30, the law includes a clause that automatically renewed it for the 2008 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
“We’ve all agreed to work together to address some of the major concerns that some people have on this piece of legislation, without weakening the essence of the bill, and get a piece of legislation done,” President Bush said after the Jan. 8 meeting. That occasion marked the fifth anniversary of Mr. Bush’s signing of the law, which he considers one of his top domestic accomplishments.
While the president and congressional leaders at the meeting didn’t announce a timetable for reauthorization, most Washington policy experts said it would be best to finish an NCLB bill in 2007. The presidential-nominating process will begin in earnest with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in early January, and will dominate the political world, making it hard for Congress to pass large, difficult bills such as the NCLB renewal.
If Congress doesn’t act soon, the current version of the law could stay in place for another three years.
Just as it’s difficult for Congress to enact major bills during a campaign season, particularly with a president nearing the end of his second term, the arrival of a new president can also delay the schedule. With a change in the White House, it often takes a year or more to finish detailed bills such as the NCLB law that have been left hanging since the previous administration.
Now ... or 2010?
President Bush signed the NCLB law two weeks before the first anniversary of his inauguration. It took almost two years of President Clinton’s first term for Congress to produce a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The NCLB law is the latest version of the 42-year-old ESEA.
State and local officials don’t like the prospect of waiting until 2010 to make significant changes to the law.
“State officials and others would be disappointed if Congress failed to act on the issue,” said Ronald R. Cowell, the president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a Harrisburg, Pa.-based group that works with Pennsylvania schools.
In addition to the headaches of implementing a law they consider flawed, local officials fear that large numbers of schools would be declared in need of improvement under the current NCLB accountability system. Many of them wouldn’t deserve that label, argued Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va.
“What does that do to the public buy-in for public education?” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2007 edition of Education Week