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On Senate Panel, a Different Dynamic for NCLB Renewal

By Alyson Klein — September 21, 2007 6 min read
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Senator Edward M. Kennedy is hoping to get a bill reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act through Congress before the end of this year. But if that’s going to happen, he has some big stumbling blocks to overcome.

The chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee must navigate a complicated political landscape, characterized by the contentious reception to a draft bill put forth by House education leaders recently and a desire by some key members of his committee to hold firm on keeping the law’s central accountability tenets.

Also, Sen. Kennedy, D-Mass., must contend with having three Democratic presidential candidates on the panel: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

“You can already tell it’s pretty tricky over there,” said Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that promotes policies to serve disadvantaged students. Negotiating the bill, she said, is like going “whitewater kayaking. There’s a stone under every wave.”

As any civics teacher knows, the Founding Fathers intended for the Senate to serve as a check on the House of Representatives, which was viewed as likely to be more susceptible to shifting public sentiments. Thus, senators may be less apt than House members to back major changes to the nearly 5½- year-old NCLB law.

“My general feeling is that the Senate would be more likely to support the current law than the House,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research and advocacy organization, and a former longtime aide to House Democrats. “House members will react to complaints in their home district, complaints from teachers and school superintendents and parents. Senators tend to take the broader view, and the broader view is that the country does need to improve the public schools and [NCLB] is a national strategy to do so.”

For more discussion on this topic read our blog, NCLB: ACT II, written by Education Week reporter David J. Hoff.

Still, Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, said senators will likely be watching the debate in the House closely to get a sense of what rank-and-file members are willing to support.

Sen. Kennedy has not unveiled a comprehensive NCLB-reauthorization plan along the lines of the draft bill put forth by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and other key members of the House Education and Labor Committee. (“Draft Bill Heats Up NCLB-Renewal Debate,” Sept. 5, 2007 and “Draft Retains Quality Rules for Teachers,” Sept. 12, 2007.)

But Mr. Kennedy has introduced a number of K-12 education bills, and he is hoping to incorporate major components of those proposals into the reauthorization, said Melissa Wagoner, his spokeswoman.

One bill would update the National Assessment of Educational Progress to ensure that the federally sponsored tests set internationally competitive benchmarks. It would offer assistance to states that wanted to examine how their standards and exams compared with NAEP. But the legislation would stop short of establishing national subject-matter standards.

Sen. Kennedy has also introduced a bill that would help train teachers, and a measure that would assist schools in reaching out to parents. Another bill would provide grants to school districts to expand learning time, and offer opportunities for recent college graduates to work in after-school programs in Title I schools.

Presidential Politics

While the presidential aspirants on the Senate education committee have been largely critical of the NCLB law on the campaign trail, it’s too soon to say what kinds of changes most will seek to the law. So far, most in the Democratic field have been relatively short on specifics for NCLB, said Craig D. Jerald, the policy director of Ed in ’08, a Washington-based nonpartisan campaign to make education a top issue in the race.

Some observers say that the contenders on the committee may seek to take a significant role in shaping the legislation, particularly after getting an earful of complaints about the law from educators out on the campaign trail.

“All three candidates will probably want to be able to say that they brought some significant change to the current law so that they can tell teachers that the law is different and less burdensome,” Mr. Jennings said. “They could be vying among themselves over how to do that.”

The Democratic contenders on the committee may seek changes to the bill that give schools some relief from NCLB’s testing regime, Mr. Jennings said. Under the law, schools must assess students in reading and mathematics every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, which some educators say leads schools to focus too heavily on test preparation.

Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, who served in the Department of Education during President Bush’s first term, said the Democratic presidential contenders on the committee appear to be treading carefully, to avoid taking a position on NCLB that could come back to haunt them in the general election.

“I think if you’re a Democratic candidate, you want this thing behind you,” he said, referring to the reauthorization. “Any [candidates] that are looking past the primary have to be careful. … I think they’re proceeding very cautiously.”

Mr. Petrilli said the candidates on the education panel are more likely to focus on narrower issues that are important to them, while shying away from some of the major sticking points in the renewal debate, such as to what extent schools should be able to gauge student achievement using measures other than state tests.

Bills already introduced by the presidential contenders on the education committee may offer clues as to which issues they might champion during reauthorization. Sen. Clinton is sponsoring a bill that would help states expand prekindergarten options, while Sen. Obama has introduced a measure that would provide substantial federal resources to districts willing to try innovative methods of raising student achievement. Sen. Dodd has put forth legislation that would provide incentives for states to adopt national standards in math and science, and a more comprehensive reauthorization measure that would permit states to get credit under the law for improving individual student progress.

Bipartisan Process

But the presidential candidates are not the only members of the education panel who may have a significant impact on the reauthorization process.

“Everybody on the [Senate panel] has a pretty substantial interest in education,” Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, and a former White House domestic-policy adviser under President Clinton. “It’s a pretty knowledgeable committee, and in some ways that makes it harder.”

He noted that Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was a secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., was the education committee’s top Republican for the passage of the NCLB law in 2001, and later served as chairman.

Sen. Gregg, along with Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., another education committee member, introduced a bill this summer that would implement many of the Bush administration’s suggestions for revamping the NCLB law. Their bill would largely retain the current law, while allowing for new flexibility for states, including in measuring the progress of English-language learners and students in special education.

While both the House and Senate education committees are aiming for bipartisan reauthorization proposals, Republican support may be especially important in the Senate, since most measures in that chamber need backing from members of both parties to overcome procedural hurdles.

And, unlike in the House, where the leadership has more control over the number and content of amendments offered when the full chamber considers a bill, senators will generally have much more leeway to propose changes—or comprehensive alternatives—to Sen. Kennedy’s eventual bill.

Mr. Rotherham said that Sen. Kennedy may well be up to the task of getting a bill through the chamber, though, he said, “it’s still going to be a real challenge.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2007 edition of Education Week as On Senate Panel, A Different Dynamic for NCLB Renewal

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