Last fall, when New Hampshire social worker Carol Shea-Porter was a long-shot candidate for Congress, she told voters she wanted to scrap the No Child Left Behind Act and get the federal government largely out of the business of school accountability.
Now, U.S. Rep. Shea-Porter, a Democrat who pulled off an upset victory in November, says she’s willing to give a second look to the federal education law that she once referred to as an attempt by right-wing Republicans to “undermine our confidence in our public schools.”
But in taking that second look, she and other freshmen seem likely to have the leverage to help reshape some provisions that concern them. And they’re signaling that their support can’t be taken for granted.
Many of the other 41 freshman Demo-crats in the U.S. House of Representatives criticized the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind law while on the campaign trail as an unfunded federal mandate that forces schools to narrow their instruction so that students can pass standardized tests.
But like their New Hampshire colleague, many of those members are now seeking common ground with key Democratic architects of the NCLB law, most notably Rep. George Miller of California, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. For his part, Rep. Miller must build support among the newest members of his caucus, particularly the 10 freshman Democrats on the education committee, including Rep. Shea-Porter.
The law, which passed Congress with big, bipartisan majorities in late 2001, is up for reauthorization this year.
“I think they’re a key group that he will have to accommodate,” Jack Jennings, a former Democratic counsel to the House education committee, said of Chairman Miller and his new members. “They’re large; they’re the reason the Democrats are in the majority.”
Ear to the Ground
Mr. Jennings, who is now the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy group in Washington, said the need to work with freshmen might be part of the reason Rep. Miller has yet to introduce a comprehensive NCLB reauthorization measure.
“I think he would have charged ahead” otherwise, he said.
Freshman members say Rep. Miller is open to their views.
“George Miller has said that at one point he was very resistant to [making] many changes” to the law, Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., an education committee member, said in an interview. “But in our discussions with him, he understands that there are things that need to be fixed, and he’s open to a thorough discussion and any ideas” the newcomers present, the freshman congressman said.
Rep. Shea-Porter, who won with 51 percent of the vote, defeating incumbent Rep. Jeb Bradley, said she’s had frank conversations with Rep. Miller about her concerns over the NCLB law. He even visited her district last month and met with educators and state lawmakers there.
The congresswoman says she’s willing to see what sort of reauthorization proposals the education committee puts forth before deciding whether to support renewing the law at all.
“I’m in a holding pattern,” she said in an interview last month.
There are nine newly elected U.S. sensators who caucus with the Democrats, but most of them weren’t as critical of the NCLB law during the 2006 campaigns as some House Democrats were.
Despite their desire to reach accord on renewing the NCLB law, many freshman Democrats in the House continue to use heated rhetoric to describe the law. And a few haven’t completely given up on the idea of repealing many of its provisions.
“Reform is definitely on the agenda. Repeal probably is not, but could be if we mount a strong enough effort,” Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said during a conference call last month with voters in his district. The call was sponsored by Communities for Quality Education, a Washington-based education advocacy group.
Other new members expect the law to be reauthorized, but they appear to favor significant changes to it.
Under the law, English-language learners are counted toward a school’s annual achievement targets after they’ve been in U.S. schools for one year. Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, a freshman member of the education committee, said in an interview that she wants to consider giving such students at least three years to learn English before they must be counted for AYP.
Rep. Hirono, who immigrated to the United States from Japan as a child, said she would have “been deemed a dummy” if she had been tested within a year of her arrival.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a teacher on leave from Mankato, Minn., said his Democratic colleagues in the freshman class generally feel a “greater sense of urgency” to address issues such as the narrowing of the curriculum and an overemphasis on testing.
“Most of them came through really tough elections,” he said. “Many of them very, very much had their ear to the ground for these issues, so they seem to get it.”
Rep. Walz said he would vote against renewing the law in its current form. Among other changes, he would like to see schools be permitted to use multiple measures, including portfolios of student work, to demonstrate learning outcomes.
But other freshman Democrats were more muted in their comments.
“We can’t afford to return to the status quo that existed before NCLB, but we do have to make improvements to the law that will help us move forward,” Rep. Dave Loebsack of Iowa said during a recent conference call with his constituents.
New members of Congress interested in amending the law may be satisfied by some of the proposals for change that Rep. Miller appears likely to favor anyway, said Cynthia G. Brown, the director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.
Such ideas could include permitting states to use growth models and establishing separate tiers of consequences for schools that miss AYP solely because of a subgroup and those whose student populations as a whole are struggling.
“I think they’ll be a few folks [for whom] that’s not enough,” Ms. Brown said. “But I basically think new members will follow the lead of their chairman.”
Rep. Miller is proposing incentives for schools to improve teacher quality, as well as pushing for more money for Title I. Those moves will help address a major criticism by Democrats that NCLB is underfunded, Ms. Brown said.
Rep. Miller will need to garner as many votes as possible from within his own party, in part because 60 GOP members—including at least four of the 13 freshman Republicans—have signed onto a bill sponsored by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., that would allow states to opt out of NCLB’S accountability requirements.
Rep. Miller was unavailable to comment for this story, his spokesman, Aaron K. Albright, said last week.
House freshmen have their own incentives to work with Rep. Miller, since he is a leading adviser to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. But perhaps more importantly, after more than a decade in the minority, Democrats believe they must present a united front, now that they’re again in control, Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy said.
“They got the message, being out of power, that they can’t fight among themselves,” Mr. Jennings said.
Some opposed the law on campaign trail, but have refined their views
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week as House Freshmen Could Be Pivotal on NCLB Renewal