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Key Democrats Join President in Seeking to Revive NCLB Renewal

By David J. Hoff — February 04, 2008 3 min read
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President Bush and key members of Congress said last week that they want to jump-start the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. But the success of their efforts may depend on their ability to work together.

The president called on Congress to reauthorize the 6-year-old law, one of his most important domestic accomplishments, during his State of the Union address.

“Members of Congress: The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement,” Mr. Bush said in his Jan. 28 speech. “It is succeeding. And we owe it to America’s children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law.”

Democratic leaders on education said they are restarting their efforts to renew the law and plan to move quickly. But the frayed relationship between Democrats and the president over issues such as NCLB funding and accountability measures may make it hard for them to work together, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Rep. Miller said that the Bush administration had been “very critical” of the draft bill that he and his Republican counterpart released for discussion last year, and that the criticism had contributed to last fall’s postponement of work on an NCLB bill. Meanwhile, Rep. Miller’s Democratic colleagues are upset that President Bush hasn’t proposed budgets with enough money to fully finance the law, he added.

“The track record [on NCLB spending] has poisoned the well with members of Congress,” Rep. Miller said in an interview.

Senate at Work

Rep. Miller said he and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, are working to send a reauthorization bill to the president this spring. The Senate education panel is planning to mark up, or amend and vote on, a bill in March, said Melissa Wagoner, the spokeswoman for committee Democrats.

As federal legislators work to reauthorize the law, the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act first passed in 1965, they face several significant policy questions. Should Congress keep the law’s goal that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year? Should the law continue to rely primarily on annual test results of students in grades 3-8, and once in high school, to track schools’ and districts’ success in reaching the proficiency goal? Should the federal government underwrite teacher pay-for-performance experiments in school districts?

Congressional leaders acknowledge that it may be difficult to generate answers to all of those questions that can elicit widespread support.

In the interview, Rep. Miller said it “would be preferable” to craft a bipartisan bill, but he didn’t commit to seeking GOP support for the next version.

Moreover, the factions that have formed over big NCLB policy questions don’t always cluster neatly along party lines, congressional aides said at a Capitol Hill panel discussion last week.

“This is like a jigsaw puzzle the size of a football field,” Alice Johnson Cain, Rep. Miller’s senior adviser on K-12 policy, said at the Jan. 31 event. “The edges are done, and we’re still filling out the inside.”

Lighting a Fire

But the divisions could drive different factions toward a deal, said Carmel Martin, the Democratic counsel of the Senate education committee.

Although people may disagree on some policy issues, there’s consensus across both parties that Congress needs to fix the law’s problems, Ms. Martin said at the panel discussion, sponsored by the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, a private group that issued extensive recommendations for revising the law.

The divisions may “make it complicated,” she said, but it also may stop it from becoming a partisan fight.

While Congress tries to work out the details of the law’s future, education advocates are pressing them to make decisions soon.

Congress should act to take advantage of the emerging consensus that the federal government should hold schools and districts accountable for student achievement and that it should help districts intervene, said Tommy G. Thompson, a former governor of Wisconsin and the U.S. secretary of health and human services during President Bush’s first term. Mr. Thompson, a Republican, is the co-chairman of the Aspen Institute’s NCLB panel. The other co-chairman expressed a similar sentiment.

“We’re trying to light a fire here,” said Roy E. Barnes, a Democrat and former governor of Georgia. “We hope there will be something to mark up and move.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2008 edition of Education Week as Key Democrats Join President in Seeking to Revive NCLB Renewal

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