Kerry Softens Rhetoric On ‘No Child Left Behind’

September 21, 2004 8 min read

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

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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Mr. Kerry made no explicit mention of the law, the centerpiece of federal K-12 policy, in his July 29 speech here accepting his party’s nomination. The closest he got was saying that his education plan would set “high standards” and demand “accountability from parents, teachers, and schools.” (“Kerry Highlights Accountability, Class Sizes,” July 30, 2004.)

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 in those remarks from any of the pointed criticism of the law that he had delivered during the primary season. He focused his remarks instead on funding for it, 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.

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

‘Washington Knows Best’

Recent materials from the Kerry campaign seem to suggest that the candidate believes problems with the No Child Left Behind Act are less with the language of the law than with its implementation by the Bush administration.

“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 Kerry campaign said in a press release issued the day the Massachusetts senator addressed the AFT convention. “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 release said.

A Kerry campaign aide, who asked not to be named, argued 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 U.S. Department of Education to relax rules related to students with disabilities, those with limited English proficiency, and requirements for high participation rates in the annual testing. (“States Given More Leeway on Test Rule,” April 7, 2004.)

“Those were all, by the way, things that happened after John Kerry and John Edwards and lots of other people were saying that the administration was completely mishandling the act,” the aide said, referring to the nominee and his running mate. “Senator Kerry obviously continues to say there’s more change that needs to happen.”

The Bush administration has said the regulatory revisions were not the result of political pressure, but instead reflected a reasoned response to feedback offered by states, school districts, and others.

For their part, union officials have been far less impressed with the significance of 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 explicitly whether the Democratic candidate would seek legislative changes aimed at modifying the law’s core accountability requirements to focus on a more limited universe of low-performing schools.

“This is obviously something we are still learning about,” the aide said. “These are important issues. ... I think there’s no question to make sure the act is working as well as it possibly can.”

The aide added, “There’s no question that there needs to be flexibility in how the act operates ... so that schools are being held to challenging standards, but also standards that are rooted in common sense.”

Sandy Kress, who helped write the No Child Left Behind law while he was President Bush’s senior education adviser, said he was pleased that 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, Mr. Kerry offered strong praise for the law. (“Kerry on Education,” Feb. 18, 2004.)

At the same time, Mr. Kress said 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 the language it does have has changed in what appears to be substantive ways.

Earlier in the campaign, the site’s section on education said a Kerry administration would “revise the accountability standards in No Child Left Behind to include ways of assessing student performance in addition to testing.” It said states would construct a set of “leading indicators,” to be reviewed and approved by the Education Department, that would comprise part of a school’s indicators. Possible indicators it cited included graduation rates (already a requirement in the law), teacher and student attendance, and parental satisfaction.

That language is now gone. Instead, the Web site says the campaign 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 criticizes the Bush administration for not allowing its recent rule revisions to apply retroactively to the past academic year.

In addition, Mr. Kerry has recently said he would take a tougher stand in enforcing accountability requirements for improving high school graduation rates than he believes the Bush administration has taken.

‘Harsh Criticism’

Reg Weaver, the president of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, which is backing Mr. Kerry’s candidacy, said he’s not concerned that the senator has not been speaking lately about a need to rewrite the law.

“He could say nothing as far as I’m concerned, but I’ll bet you one thing,” said Mr. Weaver, whose union has long argued that the law imposes unrealistic and unfair demands on schools and needs substantial legislative changes. “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.”

He added, “I’m not trying to pin somebody down, you know, before they are elected. I want to get him elected first, all right?”

Edward J. McElroy, the president of the 1.3-million-member AFT, said of Mr. Kerry’s July remarks on the No Child Left Behind law at that union’s convention: “He didn’t get to the legislative details, but we’ve got enough time for that.”

“Look, these are complicated issues,” Mr. McElroy said. “We’re sure that, over time, because the people I represent are the ones who understand it, and work in a classroom with kids every day, that once [our members] get to the table and are able to explain those issues, that ... President Kerry and Vice President Edwards and the new Congress will listen very attentively.”

“There was some pretty harsh criticism [of No Child Left Behind] in the primary season,” U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, a key Democratic architect of the legislation, said in a July 26 interview here. “And, you know, you had a big field of candidates looking for an edge, and it played into that because obviously it’s a very significant change in policy.”

But Mr. Miller said he believes that some of the administrative changes put forward by President Bush’s Education Department have helped relieve political pressure and lessened criticism of the law.

“I think that has settled down,” he said. “I think clearly the [Democratic] Party recognizes that people are very interested in having high standards; they’re very interested in having assessment of those standards; they’re very interested in having accountability for that.”


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