As lawmakers continued backroom negotiations over the future of the No Child Left Behind Act last week, President Bush urged them to move the bill along.
“In order to make sure we’ve got more children ready for college, the No Child Left Behind Act needs to be reauthorized and strengthened,” the president said at a Sept. 27 ceremony at the White House, where he signed a higher education bill that will increase spending on Pell Grants and reduce the costs of taking out federal student loans. (“Bill to Boost College Aid Wins Approval in Congress,” Sept. 19, 2007.)
As the president made that plea, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, stood behind him. Rep. Miller and his committee staff members continue to work with House members to craft an NCLB-renewal bill that could win bipartisan support.
Rep. Miller had hoped that an NCLB bill would advance out of his committee by the end of September, a deadline he missed after members of Congress, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and advocacy groups objected to several key components of a discussion draft that the chairman and the panel’s senior Republican released in late August. Rep. Miller hasn’t set a new date for his committee to consider a bill.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee also missed his goal of introducing an NCLB bill in September. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is working to introduce his reauthorization bill in coming weeks, said Melissa Wagoner, the chairman’s spokeswoman.
Political Land Mines
To win enough votes for an NCLB bill, Rep. Miller and Sen. Kennedy will need to satisfy a variety of interests with sometimes contradictory goals. The almost 6-year-old law requires states to assess student achievement in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school and to use those test scores to track whether schools and districts are making adequately yearly progress—or AYP—toward universal proficiency in those subjects.
The National Education Association has said it would oppose the draft bill unless Rep. Miller makes significant changes to it. The 3.2 million-member teachers’ union objects to proposals that would require districts to develop merit-pay programs that reward teachers based on the test-score gains of their students.
When asked about the merit-pay proposal in the draft bill, NEA President Reg Weaver called it a “deal breaker,” suggesting that the union would fight any bill that includes such a requirement.
But Secretary Spellings and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the senior Republican on the House education committee, support such performancepay programs and say they should be included in the NCLB reauthorization. (“Unions Assail Teacher Ideas in NCLB Draft,” Sept. 19, 2007.)
The issue of testing presents similar difficulties. The House committee’s draft bill would allow states to add tests in additional subjects and use indicators such as graduation rates when determining whether a school or district makes AYP. Under current law, reading and mathematics scores are the central ingredients in making AYP calculations.
The NEA says that the draft proposal still puts too much emphasis on reading and math scores. Secretary Spellings, however, has said that the new measures would result in the law’s accountability system being “watered down.”
Pointing to NAEP
President Bush and Secretary Spellings suggested that the latest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released last week, are evidence that the NCLB law is resulting in improved student achievement and a narrowing of the achievement gap between minority and white students.
One day before signing the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, the president gave an address in New York City highlighting the NAEP results as a reason to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law.
“[M]y call to Congress is, don’t water down this good law,” he said as he appeared with leaders of the New York City school system at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. “Don’t roll back accountability. We’ve come too far to turn back.”
But critics of the law point out that NAEP scores increased faster from 2000 to 2003 than they did between 2003 and 2007. The law was signed in early 2002, and its testing and accountability measures weren’t fully implemented until the 2006-07 school year.
“That deflates the administration’s claims that federal law is driving school improvement,” Monty Neill, a co-executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based testing critic, said in a news release .
For his part, Rep. Miller said the NAEP scores would increase faster if Congress changed NCLB.
“We have to make the law more fair and flexible, and we have to increase and better target federal funding for schools,” Rep. Miller said in a statement. “With an improved law and better funding, I believe that we will see much stronger achievement gains among all students.”
At the White House ceremony, President Bush suggested that Rep. Miller, one of the four congressional authors of the NCLB measure in 2001, is committed to getting the law reauthorized.
“When George puts his mind to getting something done, he can get it done,” the president said.