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Host of Lawmakers Offer Bills to Revise NCLB

By Alyson Klein — August 30, 2007 6 min read
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The leaders of the House education committee issued a highly anticipated draft bill this week to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act. But dozens of other lawmakers beat them to the punch.

Members of Congress have introduced more than 100 bills to amend the main federal law in K-12 education, according to Joel Packer, the chief NCLB lobbyist for the National Education Association. While some of those bills would revise one or more provisions of the 5½-year-old law or add new programs, a handful would go much further by comprehensively reworking its accountability system.

The breadth and diversity of the legislation point to the challenges that confront Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, in crafting reauthorization plans that will be able to garner enough support in both chambers.

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Rep. Miller on Aug. 28 released a “discussion draft” of a reauthorization bill that includes many significant proposed changes.

‘Fractured Consensus’

The other members’ measures range from a bill introduced last month by Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., that would keep much of the current law intact, to a bill sponsored by Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., that would allow states to opt out of the federal accountability plan entirely. If a state chose to opt out, under Rep. Garrett’s bill, the federal government would set aside the money allocated for its federal K-12 education programs to be provided to state residents in the form of tax credits.

“If you look at these bills on a policy spectrum, not a political spectrum, you get a clear idea of how fragmented each caucus is,” said David L. Shreve, the senior education committee director for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “It gives some insight into how contentious the process is going to be when the chairmen come out with their committee bills.”

While lobbyists who lent a hand in crafting some of the reauthorization measures acknowledge that Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller are best positioned to put their stamp on the next version of the NCLB law, they say bills introduced by other members of Congress can help shape the broader debate.

Getting the bills out there “gives you an opportunity to build coalitions around big ideas,” said Gary M. Huggins, the director of the Washington-based Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan panel which in February issued 75 ideas for revamping the law.

Renewal Ideas

More than 100 bills have been introduced proposing changes to the No Child Left Behind Act:

• Expand the U.S. Department of Education’s growth-model pilot project to all 50 states
—Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Richard M. Burr, R-N.C.

• Establish voluntary national standards and tests
—Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn.

• Create a tiered rating system for schools, giving them grades of A, B, C, D, E, or F
—Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb.

• Allow states to opt out of NCLB’s accountability system
—Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich.

• Encourage schools to bolster environmental education
—Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md.

SOURCE: Education Week

Education lobbyists say many of the bills reflect a burgeoning consensus around some policies, including allowing states to measure achievement gains using so-called growth models, which give schools credit for individual student progress instead of comparing one cohort of students with its predecessors.

But while that proposal may seem “noncontroversial at the 3,000-foot level,” it’s important to note how different bills would implement a growth-model policy, said Amy Wilkins, a vice president at the Education Trust, a Washington- based organization that advocates educational improvements for poor and minority children.

For instance, the bill introduced by Sens. Burr and Gregg, both members of the Senate education committee, would allow all states to take part in the Department of Education’s growth-model pilot project, which has set strict rules for how states can measure student growth. Other bills, such as a measure introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., aren’t specific about how the growth models would be structured.

Another reauthorization measure, sponsored by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., would call for the National Assessment Governing Board to develop a set of voluntary national standards and tests.

The measure would also call for states to set up longitudinal-data systems that track individual student progress, and link that performance to teachers and programs. States would be required to develop a definition of highly effective teachers that relies chiefly on student achievement. Once states had such systems in place, they would be able to opt out of the law’s “highly qualified teacher” requirements.

Mr. Huggins of the Aspen Institute’s NCLB panel, whose recommendations influenced the Lieberman-Coleman-Landrieu bill, said that “for NCLB to hold on to its foundational principles and to actually build on that foundation with additional needed reform, congressional leaders are going to have to rebuild the since-fractured bipartisan consensus that came together to pass it the first time.”

He said it is helpful that the three senators’ bill offers centrist coverage for that approach.

But other lawmakers have taken a significantly different tack. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., a member of the House education committee, introduced a measure, similar to Rep. Garrett’s bill, that would let states decide not to participate in the NCLB accountability system. The bill, which was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has garnered more than 60 co-sponsors across both chambers.

Local Tests?

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin plans to introduce a bill in October that would allow states and school districts to use locally created assessments, portfolios, and end-of-course projects, such as research papers, to demonstrate student progress.

The measure, which is still being fine-tuned, would permit states that used “more innovative” assessment measures to gauge student progress in just three different grade spans, rather than every year from grade 3 through grade 8, and once in high school, as under current law, an aide to Sen. Feingold said.

A number of relatively similar bills, meanwhile, would allow states to use growth models, as well give states more flexibility in meeting the law’s provisions on highly qualified teachers and in measuring the progress of English- language learners and students in special education.

Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, has introduced a bill that would include those elements, and would allow states to use locally created tests for accountability. His bill also would establish a tiered system for labeling schools, grading them on a scale of A through F, rather than stamping schools as making adequate progress under the law, or not. At least five Democrats are among the 10 co-sponsors of Rep. Terry’s bill, including Reps. Carolyn McCarthy of New York and Donald M. Payne of New Jersey, who are members of the House education committee.

That a conservative Republican like Mr. Terry can team up with Democrats on a measure for overhauling the law “speaks to the fact that the problems with NCLB have been universal,” the Nebraska congressman said in an interview.

Bills introduced by members of the education committees, particularly those sponsored by members of the ruling Democratic Party, stand the best chance of being incorporated into Rep. Miller’s and Sen. Kennedy’s bills, or added to those measures as amendments when the committees consider reauthorization, Mr. Packer of the NEA said.

Narrowly targeted bills from Democrats on the House education committee range from a measure by Rep. David Wu of Oregon, which would help states decrease class size in early elementary grades, to the “No Child Left Inside Act” introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, which would promote environmental education.

“None of these bills, as standalone bills, are going to be enacted into law,” said Mr. Packer last month, before the House education committee released its discussion draft. He said the other bills give lawmakers on the committees a chance to “see where members of their own caucus are. … I think they’ve already had an impact.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as Host of Lawmakers Offer Bills to Revise NCLB

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