The No Child Left Behind Act took center stage for a prolonged discussion when Democratic presidential candidates gathered in Iowa last week for their ninth debate. By the time it was over, the law—approved by nearly all congressional Democrats two years ago—was looking a little bruised and battered.
With the first votes of the nominating season about to be cast, the message from many of the Democratic contenders when it comes to the centerpiece of federal K-12 policy is that President Bush and Congress didn’t get it quite right.
Exactly how they would change the law is hard to tell, as the candidates are still short on detail. But the main focus of their criticism is the accountability requirements at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Howard Dean—who has taken on front-runner status based on polls and fund raising—has long been an outspoken opponent of the law. He even suggested when governor of Vermont that his state should decline federal aid under the law because of all the strings attached. His rhetoric suggests he would be the most aggressive in overhauling the legislation. (“On Trail, It’s Dean vs. No Child Left Behind Act,” Nov. 12, 2003).
But many of the candidates, including all but one who cast “aye” votes just over two years ago, are now saying the federal law not only needs more funding, but also needs to be “fixed.”
Vote Was ‘Mistake’
Asked during the Jan. 4 debate to “own up quickly to a mistake you’ve made in the past,” Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina pointed to his vote for the No Child Left Behind Act.
“We put too much faith in a Bush administration administering that policy,” he said, “and it’s clear that there are changes that need to be made, changes in the standards.”
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said earlier in the debate, “I voted for the bill because I thought it was the only way to get money into public education under a Bush presidency.”
Mr. Dean said, “The proper role of the federal government in education is not to pass bills like No Child Left Behind.”
Only one Democratic candidate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, came to the law’s defense, reminding his colleagues that its core concepts have a heavy Democratic imprint.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry boards a campaign bus following a debate in Des Moines, Iowa, last week. Nine candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination, with the first big test coming with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19.
Criticizing the No Child Left Behind law may play well to many Democratic Party activists, but it could be a risky proposition in the general-election campaign against President Bush, who is certain to champion the law as one of his top domestic accomplishments.
“It will remain to be seen how much of this is early primary and nominating process type of rhetoric,” said Sandy Kress, Mr. Bush’s former education adviser.
“It would be very interesting to have the Republican candidate standing strong for a tough sense of responsibility for the effective education of disadvantaged children,” Mr. Kress said, “and the Democrats either iffy or uncertain or uncommitted to rigor.”
In addition to Rep. Gephardt and Sens. Edwards and Lieberman, the other two candidates now serving in Congress—Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio—also voted for the No Child Left Behind law.
‘Dozens’ of Worries
With the campaign for the nomination in high gear, most of the nine Democratic candidates have unveiled comprehensive—and expensive—education packages that touch on everything from early-childhood and after-school programs to college affordability and teacher recruitment.
Few of the plans for a bigger federal commitment in those areas come as much of a surprise from Democrats. What’s more striking is that the solidly bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act—a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act first passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson—has become target practice for so many of the candidates.
“It’s simply not going to promote public education,” retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark said of the law in December when the Arkansas affiliate of the National Education Association backed him. “It’s going to impede and cause a further deterioration of public education,” he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Mr. Clark said there were “dozens of things about this law that worry me.”
In New Hampshire last month, Rep. Gephardt said in an education policy speech: “Let there be no misunderstanding—we must continue to set high standards. But those standards should be set by parents and teachers, not a cynical White House with ulterior motives. And those goals should not be so far out of reach that they leave countless students disillusioned or demoralized.”
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, another of the Democratic presidential contenders, has criticized what he calls the law’s “one size fits all” approach.
But one of the law’s authors, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., wonders what the candidates have in mind.
“These people are involved in a primary [election] strategy, and they’re looking for an edge, but I haven’t seen what they would replace it with,” he said. “Would they get rid of the demand to show progress? Would they get rid of the highly qualified teachers [requirement]?”
“We didn’t design those tests,” Mr. Miller added. What the federal government is insisting on, he said, is results.
Mr. Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, shares the frustration with current funding for the law, which he said makes the job tougher for schools. But he said it was still important to back the law’s high expectations.
The law asks a lot of public schools. It says all students should be proficient—as defined by each state—by the end of the 2013- 14 school year, and requires steady academic progress overall and by subgroups of students, such as poor and minority youngsters.
It dishes out increasingly tough consequences for schools and districts that fall short. Those range from compelling districts to spend a portion of their federal aid on allowing students to transfer from low-performing schools to restructuring a school if it fails to improve for several more years.
The law also says all public school teachers must be “highly qualified” by the end of the 2005- 06 school year.
It took months of negotiations to fine-tune some of those requirements. So far, the alternatives offered by the Democratic candidates remain vague. Most of the information in the candidates’ campaign documents amounts to just a few sentences.
“We need high-quality assessments that reflect actual learning, and we need to consider indicators of school performance other than simply test scores,” Sen. Kerry says.
Rep. Gephardt says he would “reform the program to enhance state and local input on measures of student achievement without undermining the core structure of accountability to help students in the greatest need.”
Sen. Edwards would “revise the law to focus attention on truly failing schools, ensure that states have the flexibility to take the best possible steps to improve their schools, and clarify the definition of a ‘highly qualified’ teacher.”
Mr. Dean’s Web site says he wants “reasonable goals for adequate yearly progress that are fair to students, teachers, schools, and states and do not rely solely on standardized tests.” He also appears to support relaxing the requirement for reading and math testing each year in grades 3-8.
The former governor’s references to the law as “unrealistic” are especially troubling to Mr. Kress, who helped craft the law on behalf of the White House.
“I want to know what’s unrealistic about expecting poor kids over 12 years to be proficient against the standards that any state might set,” Mr. Kress said. “Let’s go to the schools, and let’s get specific about which groups of kids [Mr. Dean is referring to]. I want to know whether he’s talking about black kids. I want to know whether he’s talking about Hispanic kids, ... poor children.”
Future of the Party
The National Education Association and its state affiliates have long been hammering away at the No Child Left Behind Act. Its affiliates in Iowa, where party nominating caucuses take place Jan. 19, and New Hampshire, which is home to the first state primary, on Jan. 27, recently placed advertisements in local newspapers calling for changes to the law.
The Iowa ad says that the federal government should “reward success rather than focus on punishments emphasized in the law, including the requirements to close down schools and transfer students. They simply don’t work in rural states like Iowa.” It also calls for greater flexibility in the law, and more money behind it.
David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House education committee, believes it’s no coincidence the challengers are criticizing the law.
“By and large, to no one’s surprise, you’re seeing Democratic candidates during a Democratic primary process pandering to teachers’ unions,” he asserted. The teachers’ unions traditionally have been strong backers of Democratic candidates.
Others have noted that Iowa and New Hampshire have reputations for being especially strong advocates of local control, and that criticizing the federal education law is likely to play well in those states.
“We’re having a very vigorous and honest discussion about the future of the Democratic Party,” said Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Sen. Lieberman’s campaign. And part of that debate, he argues, concerns the direction of federal policy on education.
Mr. Gerstein notes that there were significant internal divisions among congressional Democrats over how far to go with demanding academic results in the No Child Left Behind law. Mr. Lieberman, he said, intends to stand by the law’s assertive posture.
“The worst thing we could do is to backslide away from the focus on high standards and achieving results,” Mr. Gerstein said, “and most important, closing the achievement gap” between students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
It’s hard to say how important a candidate’s stance on the No Child Left Behind law will be in the general election. Mr. Schnittger believes it’s risky for a candidate to become overly critical.
A survey conducted Jan. 5-6 by the Winston Group, a polling firm in Alexandria, Va., suggested solid support for the law, and even stronger support when core elements were described.
But Norman J. Ornstein, an expert on politics at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, isn’t so sure the law is going to be a big factor for the electorate.
“People like the idea that the president’s focused on education,” he said, “but it’s not like most people know the details of what’s in [the No Child Left Behind Act] or are going to make their political decisions based on this.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as ‘No Child’ Law Faulted In Democratic Race