Making college more affordable, raising the minimum wage, and other domestic items were at the top of Democrats’ agenda when they formally took control on Capitol Hill last week.
President Bush, meanwhile, made clear that another item was near the top of his list: reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act.
To mark the fifth anniversary of his signing the measure into law on Jan. 8, the president invited leading members of the new 110th Congress to the White House to discuss his goal of revising the law on schedule by the end of the year.
“It’s a very high priority,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in an interview last week. “We’ve come a long way in five years. We’re in a place where we need to build on the core principles of the law and go to the next level.”
The possibility that the NCLB reauthorization will emerge as a top-tier issue this year upset the conventional wisdom in Washington that tackling the law would be too time-consuming and politically difficult in 2007, let alone during the presidential-campaign season next year.
In a December survey of 12 Washington lobbyists and think tank researchers, all but one said they did not expect Congress to pass changes to the law until 2009, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation reported last week.
Even with Mr. Bush’s active involvement, it would be difficult to push an NCLB bill through Congress this year, said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president of national programs and policy for the Washington-based think tank.
“It’s still unlikely because the calendar is so challenging,” he said. To meet the deadline, “they have to be putting pen to paper immediately,” said Mr. Petrilli, who served in the Department of Education during President Bush’s first term.
A prominent Washington policy expert not surveyed by the Fordham Foundation said that Congress is unlikely to finish the reauthorization because it has other things to accomplish, and it doesn’t have firm answers on how to fix problems in the law.
“I don’t see any rush to reauthorize,” said Jack Jennings, a former aide to House Democrats who is now the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research and advocacy group that has been tracking the law’s impact.
Now or Later
But officials at the local level expressed optimism that Congress will solve the problems that states and districts are having in complying with the law, which requires schools and districts to meet ambitious achievement goals and holds them accountable for failing to reach them.
“There are a lot of things … that need to be fixed,” said Ellen C. Guiney, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence in the Public Schools, a group working to improve the city’s schools.
For example, the law gives states the authority to take over schools that fail to make annual academic goals. But it doesn’t say whether states have the power to ignore teacher collective-bargaining agreements while doing so. If a state tries to do so, it is likely to face a legal challenge from teachers’ unions.
“Do you [answer the question] in the courts, or do you do it by getting clarity in the statute?” said Ms. Guiney, a former aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Under the NCLB law, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, funding authority for Title I and other programs in the statute expires on Oct. 1 of this year. Although that date is written into law, Congress has routinely extended such deadlines for the ESEA and other laws.
When Democrats won majorities in both the House and the Senate in the midterm elections, they said they would pursue a long list of domestic priorities they had emphasized during the campaign. In education, those plans included lowering student-loan interest rates and creating new tax breaks for college-tuition costs. On Jan. 17, the House is scheduled to consider a bill to cut student-loan interest rates in half by 2011.
The Democratic agenda also encompasses improving access to health care, raising the minimum wage, and other issues outside of education.
But the two most powerful lawmakers on education matters have said that the NCLB law is on their lists for action. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the new chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said last month that renewal of the law was a “very, very high priority.” (His committee has reverted to its longtime name after being called “Education and the Workforce” under the Republican majority.)
In a post-election speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Kennedy, now the chairman of his chamber’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, listed several labor and health-care bills before mentioning the NCLB reauthorization as part of his agenda.
Even while other issues may take priority, Rep. Miller and Sen. Kennedy are laying the groundwork for the reauthorization process.
Rep. Miller plans to hold hearings that will address critical issues facing the NCLB law, according to a House aide familiar with the plans. Those include how to measure students’ academic growth in determining whether schools and districts are making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, how to recruit the “highly qualified” teachers required under the law, and how to improve states’ reporting of graduation rates, the aide said.
In the Senate, Mr. Kennedy hopes to begin NCLB hearings next month, said Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for the education committee.
In his speech to the Senate, the senator’s main goal for the reauthorization of the law will be to give struggling schools help in meeting their AYP targets. The aid could include financial and other incentives for highly qualified teachers to stay in such schools, as well as professional development on how to address students’ failure to meet proficiency goals.
Also in the speech, Sen. Kennedy said he wants to ensure that states set challenging academic standards and improve the quality of school assessments.
Room for Compromise
In the interview last week, Secretary Spellings said that the Bush administration wants Congress to address issues such as using “growth models” in calculating students’ academic progress, expanding access to school choice and tutoring, and improving assessment of special education students and English-language learners.
But she said the administration is steadfast in principles that are the “heart and soul” of the law. Those include the goal that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year, and that schools annually test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school to determine whether their students are making progress toward meeting that goal.
The administration is also committed, she said, to ensuring that test-score data continue to be broken down by ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic subgroups.
“Those things are sound, true, and righteous,” Ms. Spellings said.
But exactly how to accomplish those objectives will likely be the subject of intense debate.
Last week, the Forum on Educational Accountability, a coalition of 100 education, civil rights, and religious groups, recommended changes to the law that would cross some of those principles. The forum said it wants to “replace the law’s arbitrary proficiency targets with ambitious achievement targets based on rates of success actually achieved by the most effective public schools.”
The member groups include the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
The recommendations show how hard it will be to build consensus around the NCLB law even though President Bush, Rep. Miller, and Sen. Kennedy all support the underlying principles, said Mr. Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation.
Democrats will have to assuage groups such as the NEA, the NAACP, and others traditionally aligned with them. The Republicans will have a similar dilemma getting support from conservative groups that believe the law gives too much authority to the federal government, Mr. Petrilli said.
“They’re going to have to deal with the anger on the right and on the left,” he said.
To enact a renewal of the No Child Left Behind law or any other major bills, Democrats will need President Bush’s support and possibly help from Republicans in Congress.
As House leaders move quickly to pass legislation to raise the minimum wage and cut student-loan rates, they may be spoiling their chances of bipartisan cooperation later, said one Democrat with long public policy experience.
“The Democrats are making a tactical mistake. There’s a lot to be said for this fast start—it projects energy—but they’re passing up a chance to practice working with the Republicans,” said Alice M. Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, who was the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton.
“They can’t do any big piece of legislation, any expensive piece of legislation without working” in a bipartisan way, she said.
Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as Bush to Start NCLB Push In Congress