No Child Left Behind on the Campaign Trail

By Alyson Klein — October 24, 2006 11 min read
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Sitting in the back of a dimly lighted auditorium at Housatonic Community College here, Sarah Thornton listened as U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican, and Diane Farrell, his Democratic challenger, debated such issues as Medicare and the war in Iraq before asking the candidates about the issue she cared most about: How do they plan to improve Bridgeport’s floundering public school system?

Ms. Thornton said later she doesn’t want her younger sister to find herself in the position she’s in now, struggling to catch up on basic skills in college. She never really learned how to write a paper because she didn’t have a full-time English teacher during three out of her four years at this city’s Central High School, she said, only long-term substitutes who “took attendance and passed us along.” Now, finishing her associate’s degree in general studies at Housatonic, she turns in her papers a week early so that her instructors can give her feedback and she can make corrections.

In response to her query, the candidates touched on education and community revival before shifting to a discussion of taxes and other issues. That frustrated Ms. Thornton, 19.

“They didn’t answer my question,” Ms. Thornton said after the debate. “They just yelled at each other back and forth.”

The Shays-Farrell race is one of three closely watched contests in Connecticut that could help determine control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the midterm elections Nov. 7. It is also one of the few races nationwide in which the efficacy of the federal No Child Left Behind Act is getting more than passing mention, and where the Republican and Democratic candidates have staked out significantly differing positions.

That attention is especially appropriate in a state that itself is suing the federal government over the law. Connecticut’s high-profile U.S. Senate race also features candidates who have made an issue of the nearly 5-year-old law.

As the campaign moves into the final stretch, both candidates for the state’s 4th Congressional District seat are trying to convince voters that they are best able to steer federal education policy toward closing the achievement gap between schools like the one Ms. Thornton attended in industrial, urban Bridgeport and those in the wealthy, woodsy suburban towns that dominate much of the district.

But, during the Oct. 10 debate here, it was clear that the candidates have very different ideas on what approach Congress should take to close such gaps. Rep. Shays, who is 61 and in his ninth term, voted for the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. He still supports the law, which is the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda, although he favors more flexibility in testing English-language learners and students with disabilities.

“I agree with members on both sides of the aisle voting for the No Child Left Behind bill,” Mr. Shays said. “It’s interesting: It passed on a bipartisan basis, but as soon as some teachers’ unions started to object to it, then politicians started to back away from it.”

He said the law was modeled partly on Connecticut’s own accountability system, which employs the Connecticut Mastery Test. The difference, he said, is that his state’s exams “had no consequences. No Child Left Behind has consequences.”

The law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires that the states test all students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and at least once in high school. Schools that fail to meet achievement targets under the law are subject to increasingly serious sanctions, including the loss of federal funds.

Rep. Shays said during the debate he supports more funding for the federal law, but he pointed out that after passing the measure, Congress did boost education spending significantly.

“I’m not backing away from No Child Left Behind,” he said. “Because I’m going to ask you, what was it like before? If our children are going to compete with children from India and other places, they need to get a good education.”

Ms. Farrell, 51, a former Westport selectwoman, a position similar to mayor, said that schools are “suffering under the punitive approach of No Child Left Behind.”

She said her mother was a special education teacher, one brother teaches 3rd grade, and the other is a high school principal. While she supports the law’s goals, she would like it to be less punitive and more focused on providing federal resources to schools that need them, including extra teacher training and smaller classes.

“We have an achievement gap; we see it every day in Bridgeport,” she said. “The reality is you have to revise this legislation to make it meaningful.”

Later that day, during a campaign stop at a Head Start school in Norwalk, Conn., Ms. Farrell showed 4-year-old Joshua, a pupil at the school, how to make each of the letters in her first name, as she talked about the No Child Left Behind law.

“It’s a stick approach, as opposed to a carrot approach,” she said in an interview. “The title is the best thing about it.”

Connecticut Congressional Races at a Glance

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: Education Week

She said she does not think that students need to be tested every year. She noted that before the law’s enactment, Connecticut tested its students in 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th grades. She said that accountability system was successful.

She also criticized the federal law’s provisions allowing students to transfer out of schools that consistently fail to meet achievement targets, saying the policy is unrealistic because a majority of schools in some of the nation’s most troubled districts fail to meet the law’s goals, leaving students with nowhere to go.

Ms. Farrell said that there is a role for the federal government in school accountability, but that assessments should focus more on critical thinking. Measuring learning “is not quite as black and white as some federally mandated standardized tests,” she said.

Ms. Farrell is a former advertising executive for J. Walter Thompson Inc., a large New York City-based agency. She also served as the PTA president at Coleytown Elementary School in Westport. She said she knows that her views on the education law don’t necessarily coincide with those of Democratic education leaders in Congress, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Both lawmakers, who are counted among the architects of the No Child Left Behind legislation, have sought some of the additional resources for the law that she called for during the debate. But Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Miller steadfastly support the basic framework of the law, which is scheduled for reauthorization next year.

“I have to respectfully disagree with them,” Ms. Farrell said. “That’s where an independent, fresh look at the law could work to its advantage.”

Ms. Farrell has been endorsed by the Connecticut Education Association, an affiliate of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association.

“She understands that the way the law is designed basically sets everyone up for failure, and that we need to put more money into needy places, not waste it on testing provisions,” said Mary Loftus Levine, the CEA’s political-action coordinator. “[Mr. Shays’] position was, ‘Let’s let this law work, it’s done all these great things. It’s raised the bar.’ But it hasn’t done any good.”

Ms. Farrell isn’t the only Democratic challenger in a U.S. House race in Connecticut seeking to use her position on the No Child Left Behind law to distinguish herself from a Republican incumbent. Although Connecticut voters supported the Democratic presidential nominees in 2000 and 2004, Republicans hold three of the state’s five House seats.

With steep drops in the popularity of President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress, Democrats see a takeover opportunity in the state’s GOP-held House districts. They have poured resources into defeating the incumbents—Reps. Shays, Rob Simmons, and Nancy L. Johnson. The two seats held by Democrats are considered noncompetitive.

The No Child Left Behind Act has come up in all three competitive House races in the state, as well as the Senate race, in which businessman Ned Lamont defeated three-term incumbent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat, in the August primary. Sen. Lieberman is now running a strong Independent bid against Mr. Lamont in the general election, with Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger widely seen as out of contention.

K-12 education policy, which is rarely a defining issue in congressional races, has been especially overshadowed this year by issues such as the war in Iraq, the economy, and energy policy, both here and nationally.

Nevertheless, the No Child Left Behind Act is a prickly issue in the Constitution State. Connecticut’s suit over the law seeks to force the federal government to increase its funding to a level that the state contends would be sufficient to meet its mandates. A federal judge last month dismissed three of the suit’s four claims on procedural grounds, but he allowed one claim to go forward.

“No Child Left Behind has not been terribly successful,” said Gary L. Rose, a professor of politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He said that while the law received broad bipartisan support in Congress, most Connecticut voters associate it with President Bush, whose approval ratings are low in every congressional district in the state. “It’s just one more arrow in the quiver [the Democrats] can use against President Bush.”

The Shays-Farrell race is a rematch of 2004, when Ms. Farrell garnered 48 percent of the vote to Rep. Shays’ 52 percent. That year, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., carried the district in his presidential bid, beating President Bush by 52 percent to 46 percent.

Rep. Shays has been able to hold Connecticut’s 4th District seat for nearly two decades largely because he works to portray himself as fiercely independent from his party’s leaders. He has a voting record putting him almost in the center of the House, according to National Journal, a Washington-based non-partisan publication that tracks federal politics.

In Congress, Mr. Shays bucked House GOP leaders by becoming a key sponsor of sweeping legislation, enacted in 2002, that placed new restrictions on campaign financing. But to the chagrin of some 4th District voters, Mr. Shays voted in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq. He has made 14 trips there since the conflict began and has recently proposed setting specific timelines for Iraqi forces to replace American troops.

Marching in a Columbus Day parade down Wayne Street in Bridgeport, through a neighborhood of small, older single-family homes and locally owned Mexican and Italian eateries, Rep. Shays stopped frequently to chat with voters, running back to catch up to the parade. He seemed undaunted by the prevalence of lawn signs in support of his opponent in this Democratic stronghold, which backed Ms. Farrell two years ago.

Still, some voters who live in or near Bridgeport said they feel they know Rep. Shays well and trust him. Joseph DiMenna, who recently retired as an elementary school principal, said he has met the congressman several times and is impressed by his independence.

“I think he’s doing an admirable job,” said Mr. DiMenna, who was marching with the Bridgeport Area Cultural Italian Organization. “He votes the issues, rather than the party. He’s not getting a fair shake from the teachers’ union or any of the unions.”

Mr. DiMenna said he supports the principles of the No Child Left Behind Act, but feels that it has not been implemented properly.

“It think it’s a good vehicle, … but they haven’t funded it,” he said, “and it’s been very punitive when it shouldn’t have been.”

Still, he thinks that more accountability, backed by the federal government, is generally the right step for K-12 education. He said he trusts Mr. Shays to take a close look at the law during the reauthorization process and to push for flexibility where it is needed.

Fairfield, Conn., is less than 10 minutes down Interstate 95 from Bridgeport, but it might as well be in another universe. Centered around a commuter-rail station, the downtown shopping area looks like a scene out of a J. Crew catalog: colorful, wood-sided buildings housing art galleries, a gourmet grocery, and upscale retail stores such as Banana Republic.

Sitting in the cafe section of a Borders bookstore with her two sons, who are 8 and 14, Nerina Maggi, a district manager for Burlington Coat Factory, was eager to talk about the House race.

“I’m supporting Chris Shays,” she said, adding that she has “watched him for a long time,” and that he dropped by to greet her son and other students from his school when they took a trip to Washington.

She said also backs the No Child Left Behind Act.

“That’s Bush’s plan, right?” she said. “I’m all for it. I don’t know that our schools are really dedicated to it. I know a lot of schools that really don’t hold teachers accountable.”

She sends her children to private schools because she believe the public schools near her home in Shelton, Conn., are overcrowded.

Browsing in the bookstore’s greeting-card section, Ryan Odinak, a former special education teacher who now heads the Fairfield Arts Council, said that although she has voted for Rep. Shays in the past, she plans to support Ms. Farrell this year.

Ms. Odinak, a Democrat, said she feels the No Child Left Behind Act has not been successful in Connecticut because accountability “has to go hand in hand with the resources to do something about” the achievement gap. The federal government has not followed through with its funding promises, she said.

Still, although education is usually a top issue for Ms. Odinak, her views on the school improvement law were not what swayed her this time.

“It was the war that tipped me on Shays,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as No Child Left Behind On the Campaign Trail


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