Departing From Primary-Season Rhetoric, Kerry Softens Criticism Of ‘No Child’ Law

August 11, 2004 5 min read
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In the heat of the presidential-primary season, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts delivered some tough rhetoric about the No Child Left Behind Act, charging that the legislation he had voted for two years earlier was a “one-size-fits-all” approach to policymaking.

Election 2004

Now, as he shapes his education message for the general-election campaign against President Bush, the Democratic nominee has softened his tone. He is using language that suggests that, if elected, he may be less aggressive in making adjustments to the bipartisan law—a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—and may not necessarily pursue legislative fixes.

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Read a related story, “Kerry Aiming for the Center on Education.”

Mr. Kerry made no explicit mention of the law, the centerpiece of federal K-12 policy, in his July 29 speech in Boston accepting his party’s nomination for president. The closest he got was saying that his education plan would set “high standards” and demand “accountability from parents, teachers, and schools.”

He did discuss the law earlier in July, when he gave a lengthy speech at the American Federation of Teachers’ annual convention in Washington. But he refrained from any of the pointed criticism he had delivered during the primary season; instead, he focused on increasing funding for the law and on other proposals.

“What this shows is basically the difference between a primary election and a general election,” said a Democratic policy analyst, who asked not to be named. “Howard Dean, through his strident and somewhat destructive rhetoric, pulled the party in a very unproductive direction.”

During the primaries, Mr. Dean, the former Vermont governor, leveled harsh attacks on the No Child Left Behind Act, and he criticized Mr. Kerry and other Democratic presidential candidates for having voted for it. (“On Trail, It’s Dean vs. No Child Left Behind Act,” Nov. 12, 2003.)

“Part of Kerry’s challenge now is to tack back to where most voters are,” the Democratic analyst said.

Some other observers have suggested that the Kerry campaign is also softening its rhetoric to sidestep Republican charges that the Democratic nominee is “flip-flopping” on a law for which both he and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, voted.

Changing Landscape

Recent materials from the Kerry campaign suggest the candidate believes that problems with the No Child Left Behind Act are less with the statute itself than with its implementation.

“This president committed to resources and reforms in No Child Left Behind, but he has fallen $27 billion short and implemented the law with a top-down, Washington-knows- best attitude that hurts students,” the campaign said the day Sen. Kerry addressed the AFT. “John Kerry and John Edwards will put new resources into our schools and make reform work by fully funding No Child Left Behind, creating a new bargain with America’s teachers, and beginning a national campaign to raise high school graduation rates.”

“They will also make sure that the rules under NCLB make sense and achieve the act’s purposes,” the July 16 release said.

A Kerry campaign aide, who asked not to be named, argued in a convention-week interview that much had changed since the primary season, but he was not referring to any political calculations by the Democratic nominee.

“I think the [Bush] administration has changed a great deal by altering this whole series of regulations,” the aide said. “I think that has changed the landscape quite a lot. You’ve had major shifts in terms of how [adequate yearly progress] is calculated.”

The aide pointed to recent announcements by the federal Department of Education to relax rules related to students with disabilities, those with limited English proficiency, and requirements for high participation rates in annual testing. (“States Given More Leeway on Test Rule,” April 7, 2004.)

“Senator Kerry obviously continues to say there’s more change that needs to happen,” he said.

For their part, teachers’ union officials have appeared far less impressed with those changes than the Kerry campaign seems to be. The AFT this spring described them as “half-steps” and “tinkering.”

The Kerry aide stopped short of saying whether the candidate, if elected, would seek legislative changes to the law’s accountability provisions to focus on a more limited universe of low-performing schools.

“This is obviously something we are still learning about,” the aide said. “I think there’s no question to make sure the act is working as well as it possibly can.” The aide said the goal is to ensure that “schools are being held to challenging standards, but also standards that are rooted in common sense.”

Little Detail

Sandy Kress, who helped write the No Child Left Behind law when he was President Bush’s education adviser, said he was pleased the Massachusetts senator had muted his criticism of the law.

“I feel better today about where he is on No Child Left Behind than where he was six months ago,” Mr. Kress said. “But I felt even better about where he was … the day the bill passed the Senate.” At that time, in 2001, Mr. Kerry sang the law’s praises.

Mr. Kress contended, however, that the Kerry campaign needs to be far more clear in its intentions toward the law. “It’s just very hard to know where Senator Kerry stands on these fundamental issues,” he said. “It’s terribly important to know. No Child Left Behind is so explicit, so detailed.”

The Kerry campaign’s Web site offers little detail, and its language about the law has changed.

Earlier in the campaign, the site said Mr. Kerry would “revise the accountability standards in [the law] to include ways of assessing student performance in addition to testing.” States would construct a set of “leading indicators,” it said, that would help judge schools. Possible factors included graduation rates (already required in the law), teacher and student attendance, and parental satisfaction.

That language is now gone. Instead, the Web site says Mr. Kerry is “committed to making No Child Left Behind work for our children.” It criticizes the widespread use of “fill-in-the-bubble tests” and promises to support efforts to create more sophisticated tests. It also attacks the Bush administration for not allowing recent rule revisions to apply retroactively to the 2003-04 academic year.

In addition, Sen. Kerry has recently said he would take a tougher stand in enforcing demands for improving high school graduation rates than he believes President Bush has taken.

Reg Weaver, the president of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, which is backing Mr. Kerry’s candidacy, said in an interview at the Democratic convention that he wasn’t concerned that the senator had not been speaking lately about rewriting the law. The NEA has argued that the law imposes unrealistic and unfair demands on schools and needs major legislative changes.

“He could say nothing as far as I’m concerned, but I’ll bet you one thing,” Mr. Weaver said of the nominee. “When I go in to talk to him, I bet you there would be a recognition that something needs to be done, and it’s going to be done.”

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