Bush Presses NCLB Renewal on His Terms

By David J. Hoff — January 11, 2008 5 min read

The policymakers who control the future of the No Child Left Behind Act agree the law needs changing. But they don’t agree on how extensive those changes need to be or how to enact them.

As the law turned 6 years old this week, a leading Democrat signaled that he would push for a bill that would make far-reaching revisions to the NCLB law’s accountability rules and add new programs to help schools reach the law’s goal that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

“The law still needs major changes to bring out the best in all children,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, wrote on the opinion page of The Washington Post on Jan. 7. Such revisions, he added, would include rewarding schools for “incremental progress” and changing the accountability rules so they don’t encourage teachers to focus on test preparation.

But President Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings suggested that they favor less significant changes to the law—and they are willing to use administrative powers to achieve their ends.

“We don’t want the No Child Left Behind Act to be viewed as something that hamstrings innovation. There ought to be flexibility in the system,” the president said during a Jan. 7 visit to Horace Greeley Elementary School in Chicago. “We’re going to provide help for struggling schools—extra help. We want to make sure that a high school degree means something.”

Secretary Spellings, in a Jan. 10 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, said: “Congress has had over a year to consider these reforms, but students and teachers need help now. So if Congress doesn’t produce a strong bill quickly, I will move forward.”

Happy Anniversary?

The posturing over the NCLB law’s future came in a variety of events and statements designed to mark the anniversary of President Bush’s signing of the law. At the signing ceremony on Jan. 8, 2002, Mr. Bush celebrated Republican leaders on education, as well as Sen. Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who is now the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Although Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller remain supporters of the law, they are calling for more extensive changes than the Bush administration would like. What’s more, Rep. Miller is criticizing the administration for not supporting his committee’s efforts to reauthorize the law, which stalled last fall as a much-debated draft bill didn’t receive enough support from either Democrats or Republicans.

“It is baffling that the Bush administration’s sudden sense of urgency to change the law is coming on the heels of our committee’s efforts to significantly improve No Child Left Behind,” Rep. Miller said in a statement released after Secretary Spellings’ Jan. 10 speech. “Over the last year, we have offered the president many opportunities to work with us in good faith. Instead, he has refused to take part in any meaningful negotiations.”

The division between congressional Democrats and the administration raises questions over whether they will reach agreement on legislative revisions to the NCLB law before President Bush leaves office next January.

Accountability Differences

For example, Democrats and the administration appear far apart on the law’s accountability measures. In his Washington Post op-ed this week, Sen. Kennedy wrote that the law should allow school districts to use “a broader array of information, beyond test scores, to determine which schools need small adjustments and which need extensive reforms.”

But President Bush and Secretary Spellings reinforced their support for the key elements of the current accountability system, which requires states to assess students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Using those data as the primary measure, states determine whether schools are making adequate yearly progress—or AYP—toward the goal of universal proficiency.

In Chicago, President Bush said he would veto any bill that “weakens the accountability system in the No Child Left Behind Act.” He issued a similar pledge in October. (“Bush Says He Would Veto NCLB Reauthorization Bill That Lacked Key Elements,” Oct. 24, 2007.)

Answering a question at the National Press Club event, Ms. Spellings said the administration would reject proposals to let schools assess less frequently than every year or to postpone the target date for universal proficiency. It also would oppose, she said, adding “so many measures … that people are confused” about the meaning of the accountability system’s results.

The House’s draft would have allowed states to use other measures—such as test scores on other subjects and attendance—to supplement reading and math scores.

While there is widespread agreement that the law needs revisions, the NCLB law will stay in effect without congressional action to amend or reauthorize it, Secretary Spellings told reporters on Air Force One while en route to Chicago with the president, according to a White House transcript.

The law includes a clause that allows Congress to continue to fund its programs in future years, even if it does not formally reauthorize them, she added. Ms. Spellings, though, may preempt Congress and offer administrative changes that could alter the way schools and districts implement the law.

She did not specify in her Press Club speech what actions she might take, but she did highlight her regulatory actions to date.

Administrative Changes

The biggest is a pilot project allowing nine states to calculate the AYP status of schools and districts based on students’ academic growth. Under the law, accountability decisions are made by comparing every grade level’s test score with the scores of the previous year’s class.

Last month, Ms. Spellings invited all states to propose growth models, lifting a cap of 10 participating states when she created the pilot project in 2005.

To gather suggestions for her next action, Secretary Spellings said she would be traveling extensively in coming months. In addition to going to Chicago with the president, she testified on the NCLB law in the Florida legislature this week. During the week of Jan. 14, she plans to visit California, Oregon, and Washington.

In addition to their policy differences, the Bush administration and Democrats disagree over funding of the NCLB law.

On Air Force One, Secretary Spellings defended the funding for the law’s programs, saying that appropriations have increased by more than 40 percent since 2001.

On Jan. 7, a federal appeals court reinstated a lawsuit claiming that states and districts shouldn’t be required to spend their own funds to pay for costs associated with implementing the NCLB law’s rules.

Sen. Kennedy wrote that the law “fails to supply the essential resources that schools desperately need to improve their performance.” In a Jan. 7 statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that the law has been “vastly underfunded.”

Rep. Miller, in his Jan. 10 statement, said: “We simply won’t be able to improve our public schools as long as President Bush continues to deprive states and schools of the resources they need to succeed.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Bush Presses NCLB Renewal on His Terms


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