Federal

Amid Pessimism on NCLB, Talks Continue

By David J. Hoff — December 17, 2007 4 min read
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When Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., took over as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee in January, he told audiences that reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act was doable. He occasionally appeared with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings at his side, promising that such a bill would clear the House this year.

With that goal now unreachable, Rep. Miller sounds pessimistic about the law’s prospects for renewal in 2008, and he is blaming President Bush.

“It is difficult to see how we get a reauthorization bill done in this Congress as long as the president continues to oppose both common-sense improvements to the law and additional education funding,” Rep. Miller said in a statement last month after Mr. Bush threatened to veto a bill appropriating large increases for the NCLB law and other domestic programs.

The president kept that promise, and Congress continues to negotiate with him over funding for education and other domestic programs in fiscal 2008.

Meanwhile, legislative work on updating the nearly 6-year-old NCLB law has stalled. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said he hopes to write an NCLB bill early next year for consideration by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which he chairs. Meanwhile, after postponing work on a preliminary draft in November, Rep. Miller hasn’t set a timetable for his committee’s work.

But observers say the experiences of 2007 suggest it will be difficult for the education committee leaders, or any other supporters of the NCLB law, to negotiate compromises among disparate groups with sometimes unbending stands on the law.

“I don’t know how Congress is going to thread the needle,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank that supports the law’s goals.

The difficulty became apparent this fall, Mr. Petrilli said, when teachers’ unions and other education groups objected to many elements of a “discussion draft” bill released in stages starting in August by Rep. Miller and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the House education committee.

Hopes for 2008 Action

The committee has removed electronic versions of those drafts from its Web site because they don’t “reflect the latest negotiations” about the future of the legislation, said Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Democrats on the panel.

As part of those talks, Rep. Miller met several times this fall with Rep. McKeon and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio to build bipartisan support for NCLB reauthorization.

Last month, Rep. Miller and Sen. Kennedy met privately with the heads of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Sen. Kennedy convened the meeting as part of his outreach efforts to generate support to reauthorize the law, said Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for the senator.

Education on Capitol Hill

Here is where major education legislation stands as the first year of the 110th Congress draws to a close:

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate education committee, had hoped to shepard the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act through Congress this year. Both panels held numerous hearings on the law. Rep. Miller and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the House panel’s ranking Republican, released a detailed draft bill in August that was met with widespread criticism. Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., circulated parts of a draft NCLB bill this fall. The law’s renewal is stalled until next year and perhaps until the next president takes office.

HEAD START

Congress in November overwhelmingly approved a bill to reauthorize the preschool program for five years and bolster accountability for local grantees. President Bush signed the bill last week, while expressing reservations over some of its provisions.

HIGHER EDUCATION ACT

The Senate in July approved a reauthorization measure that would help colleges of education partner with school districts to offer enhanced field experiences. The House Education and Labor Committee approved its own HEArenewal bill in November, but the bill has not yet been considered on the House floor. Congress earlier had approved a package of changes to federal student-aid programs traditionally governed under the HEA. Those included the provision of tuition grants of up to $4,000 a year for high-achieving students who commit to teaching in high-need subjects such as mathematics in hard-to-staff schools. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act became law in September.

SOURCE: Education Week

“It was a courtesy meeting to talk about how we saw things,” said Reg Weaver, the president of the 3.2 million-member NEA. “There’s a commitment to try to do something [on NCLB in 2008]. It’s not going to go away. We’ve got to deal with it at some point.”

The four participants didn’t discuss specific issues, Mr. Weaver said.

A spokesman for Edward J. McElroy, the president of the 1.3-million member AFT, said Mr. McElroy wouldn’t comment.

Mr. Kiley, the House panel’s spokesman, would say only that “Chairman Miller enjoyed the meeting and felt it was productive.”

The teacher unions’ support would be crucial for any NCLB bill.

Although Rep. Miller’s November statement blamed President Bush for the stalemate over NCLB renewal, the NEA probably was more to blame for sidetracking legislation this fall, said Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington watchdog group.

Throughout the year, President Bush has held several high-profile events to promote the NCLB law. In contrast, the NEA and its California affiliate lobbied intensely against the discussion draft, placing online advertisements, arranging for members to travel to Washington, and soliciting opposition from the grassroots. (“NEA Leads Opposition to Law’s Renewal,” Nov. 14, 2007.)

“The most intense opposition to the Miller-McKeon draft was not from” the Bush administration, said Ms. Piché, whose Washington-based group supports the current law and efforts to add teacher-performance-pay measures to it. “It was from the teacher unions.”

Even if the Democrats and the unions reach agreement on merit pay and other issues, that may cost them Republican support for an NCLB bill, said Mr. Petrilli. “If Democrats have decided they can’t cross unions on No Child Left Behind, I don’t see how this bill gets reauthorized,” he said.

Losing Sight of Goals

If Congress and President Bush are unable to enact a reauthorization bill next year, supporters of the law suggest that many of its goals will be undermined.

In the current school year, 15 percent of schools have been identified as “in need of improvement” under the law’s accountability rules. Most experts predict that percentage will increase substantially in coming years, said Randy DeHoff, a member of the Colorado board of education. The law requires states to identify and work to improve schools where students aren’t progressing toward the goal of all students’ being proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Widespread failure to meet that target would “diminish support for the goal of the legislation,” said Mr. DeHoff, a Republican, who is the executive director of the Charter School Institute, Colorado’s statewide charter school authority.

“We run the risk of … losing sight of that goal [of universal proficiency] and going back to where we were before,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 19, 2007 edition of Education Week as Amid Pessimism on NCLB, Talks Continue

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