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NCLB Renewal Debate Launched in Earnest

By David J. Hoff — January 17, 2007 5 min read
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While President Bush and top education lawmakers agree on many of the principles in the No Child Left Behind Act, they may struggle to renew the law if they can’t compromise on how much to spend on it.

In several events last week marking the fifth anniversary of the law’s enactment, Mr. Bush, his secretary of education, and the leaders of the education committees in Congress reaffirmed that they stand firmly behind the law’s ambitious achievement goals and its testing and accountability rules.

But congressional Democrats and the president are not seeing eye to eye on how much to spend on its array of K-12 programs—a divergence that could derail their attempts to reauthorize the law on schedule this year.

“We made our case that the legislation clearly needs additional resources to be successful,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, told reporters after meeting with President Bush, first lady Laura Bush, and congressional leaders at the White House on Jan. 8. “It will make the reauthorization process far more difficult” if the two sides can’t agree on dollar figures, Rep. Miller said.

Asked about the discussion of the law’s finances, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., declined to address it.

“Let’s talk about the hopeful aspects of today’s meeting,” the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee said at the same impromptu news conference outside the White House.

With Democrats urging the president to include major spending increases, Bush administration officials would not say how much money Mr. Bush will propose for the law when he releases his fiscal 2008 budget proposal on Feb. 5.

“We’ll find the right calibration between reform and resources, as we did five years ago,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told reporters earlier in the day.

‘Core Principles’

Jan. 8 marked the anniversary of the day that President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002. It also was the first chance for the president and congressional leaders to discuss their priorities for reauthorizing the law this year.

An overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was first adopted in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the law requires states to demonstrate annual progress in student achievement, with the goal that all students will be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year. It requires states to assess students in those subjects in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and to hold schools and districts accountable for making adequate yearly progress toward meeting the 2014 deadline.

On the morning of the fifth anniversary, Secretary Spellings launched the Bush administration’s drive to reauthorize the law by the end of this year. She said the administration wants Congress to stand firm on what she calls the “core principles” of the law. The most important of those, she said, are the 2014 deadline and using annual testing and accountability as ways to track progress toward that goal.

Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller, who were among the architects of the law in the first year of Mr. Bush’s presidency, have voiced support for those elements in the past and again after last week’s meeting with the president.

“We’ve all agreed to work together to address some of the major concerns that some people have on this piece of legislation, without weakening the essence of the bill,” President Bush told reporters at the end of the meeting.

Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller also characterized their meeting as a positive first step in the effort to reauthorize the law.

Although the current authorization expires Sept. 30, most Washington observers predict Congress will extend that deadline and may not complete work on a new NCLB bill until 2009—after the next presidential election.

The leaders of the new Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill have made reducing the cost of college their top education priority. That and other concerns may leave little time to address the complicated political and policy issues facing the NCLB law. (“Bush to Start NCLB Push in Congress,” Jan. 10, 2007.)

Politics and the Budget

Democrats contend that the law is underfinanced and focuses too much on punishing schools for failing to reach their student-achievement targets.

For example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a statement on the law’s anniversary calling its accountability measures “far too punitive.”

Although the legislation has the support of key players such as Rep. Miller, Sen. Kennedy, and their Republican counterparts on their committees, pushing an NCLB bill through Congress without the support of the Senate majority leader would be difficult.

Many other Democrats in Congress have complaints about the law that are similar to Sen. Reid’s, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. And conservative Republicans don’t like the prescriptive nature of the law, with the federal Department of Education mandating decisions about states’ testing and accountability systems, he added.

Opposition to the law could be overcome if more funding for the law materializes—or be exacerbated if it doesn’t.

“Money could be the dividing line, or it could be the grease that makes the deal go,” said Mr. Rotherham, who was an education adviser to President Clinton.

In his statement, Sen. Reid said the federal government’s funding for NCLB programs has been $55 billion less than needed to implement the law in the five years since its enactment. Secretary Spellings said that funding for programs authorized under the law has increased 41 percent since the law passed, but Democrats say that’s not enough.

The federal government is spending $21 billion on NCLB programs in the 2006-07 school year. In the past five fiscal years, Congress has appropriated $102 billion for NCLB programs.

“The question is whether those resources are adequate” to meet the achievement goals by the end of the 2013-14 academic year, Rep. Miller said after meeting with President Bush. “I do not believe we can accomplish that without additional funding.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as NCLB Renewal Debate Launched in Earnest

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