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Effect of Stimulus on NCLB Renewal Mulled

By Alyson Klein — March 09, 2009 6 min read
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Even as states and school districts prepare to absorb billions of dollars in economic-stimulus aid for education, policymakers and analysts are quietly discussing whether the infusion of federal cash may reshape the landscape around reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The 7-year-old law has long been criticized as underfunded—a critique some say has less validity after passage last month of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, whose aims include stemming a potential wave of layoffs and programmatic cuts in education.

Some practitioners and education organizations argue, however, that problems with the accountability system at the heart of the No Child Left Behind law remain unchanged, despite the unprecedented new education funding in the stimulus package.

Meanwhile, one top lawmaker says that the massive injection of new federal funds gives President Barack Obama’s administration and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “credibility” with the public and with educators.

“I really think this changes the conversation dramatically,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “I think it makes things a lot easier.”

Rep. Miller said he’s hoping to reauthorize the NCLB law—the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first adopted in 1965—this calendar year. The law’s renewal has been pending since 2007.

Others in Congress are skeptical.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said that the funding for education in the stimulus package didn’t “change the conversation” at all, since it’s just one-time money.

And another Republican said he doesn’t expect criticism of the law’s funding levels to dissipate, even if Congress continues to increase education spending in the future.

“I think no matter how much money you put into it, there will still be people who say it’s underfunded,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, a Senate education committee member.

Flood of Funds

The $787 billion economic-stimulus measure includes $115 billion for education, including a $54 billion State Fiscal-Stabilization Fund aimed primarily at helping states reverse cuts to K-12 schools and colleges. Other significant spending increases will go to special education and to Title I programs for disadvantaged students. (“In Historic Package, Hefty New Funding For Pre-K, Beyond,” Feb. 25, 2009.)

Charles Barone, a former top aide to Rep. Miller, said the stimulus money goes a long way toward negating the argument that the NCLB law has been underfunded.

“It’s a sizable chunk of money,” said Mr. Barone, who is now the director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee in New York City. “I think getting a doubling in your funding leaves very little room for excuses in terms of the things that you’re expected to at least try to do.”

But Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said that while she is grateful that Congress stepped in to prevent teacher layoffs, she wouldn’t necessarily equate the infusion of aid in the stimulus bill with more money to help meet the requirements of the NCLB law.

“This is replacing money that was lost—it’s not a net increase” for most school districts, she said in an interview.

Still, Ms. Weingarten said, the money could have a major impact on future funding debates.

“If the money is well spent, and if we’re able to maintain and improve educational outcomes for kids, we will make a powerful case that money matters,” she said.

Reauthorization Overdue

Rep. Miller ran into a brick wall the last time he took a stab at renewing the law. In August 2007, he introduced a “discussion draft” that drew criticism for, among other things, being too complicated; including teacher-incentive pay; and retaining the law’s 2013-14 deadline for getting all students to proficiency in reading and math, which many educators argue is unrealistic.

The draft measure also would have created a pilot project letting states use local, rather than just state, assessments as one element in calculating adequate yearly progress under the NCLB law.

The stimulus measure doesn’t change the underlying law, but it does include programmatic choices that could help lay the groundwork for renewing the NCLB legislation—and, in some cases, steer federal policy in a new direction.

Some analysts say the new funding may push districts to adopt rigorous standards, pay more attention to the equitable distribution of teachers, and better track student progress. (“Stimulus Bill Could Boost Teacher Equity,” this issue)

The American Recovery and Reinvestment law significantly boosts, to $250 million, federal funding for state data systems, which could be used to measure individual student progress and teacher effectiveness. And it provides $200 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which awards grants for pay-for-performance programs; that amount effectively doubles the program. It also includes a $5 billion incentive fund to reward states and districts that make significant gains in student achievement.

Rep. Miller, who is a champion of such policies, appears to have found an ally in the Obama administration.

During often-heated negotiations over the stimulus bill, Secretary Duncan had plenty of chances to jettison those “reform” elements from the legislation, but continued to fight for them, Rep. Miller said. And, the committee chairman hinted, some programs could become part of the baseline education budget, although he was not specific.

“People knew what it would mean if these accounts were funded,” he said, and members of Congress voted to appropriate money for them anyway.

To tap the secretary’s $5 billion incentive fund, states must demonstrate that they are making progress toward a set of NCLB-related goals.

Those include improving the collection and use of data, bolstering state academic-content standards, developing assessments that measure the progress of different groups of students, and working toward achieving a more equitable distribution of effective and highly qualified teachers.

“It’s a bit of a booster shot for NCLB,” Mr. Barone said.

Criticism Remains

But critics of NCLB’s accountability system remain vocal.

Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, said that while increases for the Title I program for disadvantaged students and for special education “definitely have an impact, ... we also have to do things inside that system to change” the kinds of supports students get, including expanding prekindergarten programs.

And he said Congress still should rework the accountability system at the center of the law, putting less emphasis on high-stakes tests.

“We need to spend the money on research to find a good, solid system that measures student learning,” Mr. Van Roekel said.

Other educators agree that the NCLB law will need a substantial reworking, even with the major addition of federal aid under the stimulus measure.

“I think there are still going to have to be some fundamental changes,” said Mark Bielang, the superintendent of the 2,300-student Paw Paw school district in southwestern Michigan.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Effect of Stimulus on NCLB Renewal Mulled

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