Federal

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

August 11, 2004 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

See Also...

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.”

Related Tags:

Events

Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal National School Board Group's Apology for 'Domestic Terrorism' Letter May Not Quell Uproar
The National School Boards Association voices "regret" for how it sought federal aid to address threats and harassment of school officials.
4 min read
Seminole County, Fla., deputies remove parent Chris Mink of Apopka from an emergency meeting of the Seminole County School Board in Sanford, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Mink, the parent of a Bear Lake Elementary School student, opposes a call for mask mandates for Seminole schools and was escorted out for shouting during the standing-room only meeting.
Deputies remove a parent from an emergency meeting of the Seminole County School Board in Sanford, Fla., after the parent, who opposes a call for mask mandates for Seminole schools, shouts during the standing-room only meeting.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP
Federal 'A Snitch Line on Parents.' GOP Reps Grill AG Over Response to Threats on School Officials
Attorney General Merrick Garland said his effort is meant to address violent threats against school boards, not to stifle parents' dissent.
5 min read
LEFT: Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing of the Department of Justice on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. RIGHT: Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, questions Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing of the U.S. Department of Justice on Capitol Hill on Thursday, questioned by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, right, among others.
Greg Nash via AP, Andrew Harnik/AP
Federal School Boards, 'Domestic Terrorism,' and Free Speech: Inside the Debate
From critical race theory to COVID policy, the heat on schools has raised issues involving free speech and the safety of public officials.
13 min read
Brenda Stephens, a school board member with Orange County Public Schools in Hillsborough, N.C. has purchased a weapon and taken a concealed carry class over concerns for her personal safety.
Brenda Stephens, a school board member in Hillsborough, N.C., says board members face threats and bullying, an atmosphere far different from what she's encountered in years of board service.
Kate Medley for Education Week
Federal Senate Confirms Catherine Lhamon to Civil Rights Post; Kamala Harris Casts Decisive Vote
Joe Biden's controversial pick to lead the Education Department's office for civil rights held that job in the Obama administration.
2 min read
Catherine Lhamon, nominee to be assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, testifies during a Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.
Catherine Lhamon, then-nominee to be assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, testifies during a Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing in July.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images