Political Shift Could Temper NCLB Resolve

By Alyson Klein — September 26, 2006 9 min read

The two top Democratic lawmakers on education policy have signaled that if their party regains control of one or both houses of Congress in November, they will seek to retain the core accountability features of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California would likely support more funding for the law, while seeking to keep its requirements that schools test students annually and be held accountable for the results.

The two, who were among the architects of the bipartisan law five years ago, have continued to champion its central provisions in the face of vocal opposition. A big question is whether rank-and-file Democrats, as well as some senior members who would likely assume other key education posts in a Democratic takeover, share Sen. Kennedy’s and Rep. Miller’s commitment to keeping the law largely intact.

“The bloom has come off the rose for many Democrats and Republicans since the law was signed” by President Bush in January 2002, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group representing more than 60 large urban school districts. “Support for the legislation in Congress appears to be not as great as it was when the initial votes were taken.”

Party’s Prospects

Political analysts suggest that the 2006 midterm elections offer Democrats their best chance in years of retaking one or both chambers of Congress. If the Democrats assume control of the House of Representatives or the Senate, these members are poised to take on leadership roles on education policy over the next two years.


Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts

In line to become: Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee
Would replace: Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo.
Priorities: A key architect of the No Child Left Behind Act, Sen. Kennedy wants to bolster resources for schools in need of improvement under the law and improve tests used to measure students’ progress. He would also like to make it easier for graduates working in public-service fields to repay their student loans.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut

In line to become: Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development
Would replace: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Priorities: Sen. Dodd has introduced a bill that would change the way adequate yearly progress is calculated under the No Child Left Behind law, giving schools credit for meeting benchmarks other than simply bringing students to proficiency on mathematics and reading tests. He is also interested in boosting Pell Grants for college students.


Rep. George Miller of California

In line to become: Chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee
Would replace: Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.
Priorities: Rep. Miller, along with Sen. Kennedy, has introduced a bill, called the Teach Act, aimed at improving teacher quality and encouraging effective teachers to work in high-need schools. He would like to cut interest rates on student loans in half.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California

In line to become: Chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Education Reform
Would replace: Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del.
Priorities: Rep. Woolsey would like to see the No Child Left Behind law become more flexible, possibly by using measurements other than tests to determine a school’s progress. She would like to see the law encourage schools to educate “the whole child,” in part by bolstering classes in subjects such as art and music.

SOURCE: Education Week

Political analysts give the Democrats their best chance in years for retaking one or both chambers in this fall’s midterm elections. The party needs a net gain of 15 seats to retake the House. In the Senate, they would need to pick up six seats. Republicans have dominated Congress for most of the time since their dramatic takeover in the 1994 elections.

At a panel discussion in Washington last week, Rep. Miller said that he and other Democratic leaders would continue to work in a bipartisan way to maintain the “core concepts” of the No Child Left Behind law, which was championed by President Bush.

“I don’t see there’s any likelihood that Congress goes back on them,” said Rep. Miller, who as the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee is in line to become its chairman if his party wins a majority.

A Kennedy Fine-Tune

Sen. Kennedy, who was the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee when the law passed in late 2001 as a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, says that if he reclaims that position, he will push for changes that would help foundering schools meet the goals of the law.

“Schools need better solutions to respond to the challenges identified by the No Child Left Behind Act,” Sen. Kennedy said on Sept. 19 in comments provided to Education Week.

“We also need to fine-tune the act to make it more effective in assisting struggling schools by providing new federal funds for advisers and teacher coaches who are experienced in turning low student achievement around, and by creating new partnerships between high-performing and lower-performing schools,” the senator said.

Under the law, states must test students annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Students and districts must meet annual performance targets for their entire student populations, as well as for subgroups of students, such as those who are learning to speak English, in order to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP. Schools and districts receiving federal Title I money that fail to make AYP for two years or more face increasingly serious consequences.

Additionally, the law requires schools to employ highly qualified teachers, defined as those with state certification and knowledge of the subject they teach.

The law is due for reauthorization in 2007, although many observers doubt that Congress will meet that target.

Stronger Oversight?

Sen. Kennedy says he would seek to channel resources to helping states design better assessments and data systems. He may consider trying to add NCLB provisions to improve high schools, such as dropout-prevention measures, and work to provide schools with parent-outreach coordinators.

He and Rep. Miller have also co-sponsored a bill that would authorize money to boost the salaries of educators who work as mentor or master teachers, or in high-needs districts. The measure would give schools resources to develop a “transition year” for new teachers and overhaul state certification process, among other provisions.

For the past two years, Republicans have provided level funding for the Title I compensatory education program for poor children—a major part of the ESEA in its various versions—and grants to states for students in special education, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Democrats are more disposed to boost spending levels for those programs.

They are also more likely to spare, or even boost, K-12 programs perennially slated for elimination under President Bush’s budget proposals, such as the Upward Bound program, which prepares disadvantaged high school students for college.

“Congress has walked away from its obligation for funding the law,” Rep. Miller said last week at the discussion on the No Child Left Behind law sponsored by the Business Roundtable.

Democrats say they would keep a closer eye than the Republicans have on how the Department of Education is implementing parts of the law, including the management of the teacher-quality provisions as well as the testing of children with limited English skills and students in special education.

Because the law has been a centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic-policy agenda, the administration and current congressional leaders have a disincentive to identify school districts “that are not performing very well, but are putting forth good statistics,” Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., a member of the House education committee, said in an interview. “We would be much more clinical about this and find districts that are gaming the system.”

Though Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller may not be eager to change much in the No Child Left Behind law, other members of their party, including high-ranking lawmakers on both the House and the Senate education committees, appear poised to push for more substantial revisions.

Attempts to change the direction of the law could be bolstered by Democrats—and Republicans—on Capitol Hill who have fielded complaints about the law from teachers, administrators, and parents in their constituencies. Dissatisfaction has centered on such provisions as the law’s reliance on standardized tests to measure progress and requirements for teachers to become highly qualified.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., whose home state is suing the federal Education Department over what Connecticut contends is inadequate funding for the law, would be in line to chair the Senate Education and Early Childhood Development Subcommittee, which oversees K-12 policy.

Last year, Sen. Dodd introduced a bill that would make changes to the way states calculate AYP under the federal law, among other provisions.

Under Sen. Dodd’s legislation, schools and states would be able to get credit for showing improvement on measures other than standardized tests, such as dropout rates, the number of students who take Advanced Placement courses, and individual student improvement over time. The measure has not advanced very far.

In the House, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., would be in line to chair the key Education Reform Subcommittee after a Democratic victory. She said in an interview this month that, while she supports the concept of the No Child Left Behind law, she has reservations about some of its major provisions, including its reliance on “narrowly focused standardized tests.”

She said the law should give credit for educating “the whole child. … There’s a lot that’s being left out,” Rep. Woolsey said, citing some schools’ lack of emphasis on subjects like art, music, and geography.

At least two Democrats on the House education committee, Reps. Betty McCollum of Minnesota and David Wu of Oregon, have put forth their own proposals for reauthorizing the law, both of which focus on providing more flexibility to the states, partly by allowing them to get credit for improving individual student performance through different types of growth models.

Rep. Miller said he would support including additional measures for determining whether schools and districts make adequate yearly progress under the law. Currently, schools must meet achievement levels on state tests and attendance goals. High schools also must meet targets for graduation rates.

But Rep. Miller said any new measures must be valid and academically challenging.

“It can’t be pass-fail, have a portfolio, do some art work, and tell us the history of your life,” Mr. Miller said at the Business Roundtable forum.

Miller the Maverick?

Whether any significant changes to the No Child Left Behind Act make their way into a reauthorization may depend on the leanings of not-yet-elected Democrats who would take the place of GOP lawmakers next year, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization.

Those members would likely be in the House of Representatives, which political analysts suggest is more likely to change hands than the Senate, said Mr. Jennings, who was an aide to Democrats on the House education committee from 1967 to 1994.

Freshman House Democrats could come from swing districts, where they would need the support of the 2.8 million-member National Education Association to get re-elected two years from now, Mr. Jennings said. The NEA has criticized many aspects of the federal education law and mounted a lawsuit over its funding provisions.

In maintaining strong support for the federal school improvement law, Rep. Miller has bucked key Democratic constituencies, such as the NEA, said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a research and advocacy group in Washington, and a former Education Department official under President Bush.

“It might be easier for [Rep. Miller] to continue to play the maverick role as a ranking member than as chairman,” Mr. Petrilli said. In the event of a Democratic takeover of the House, he said, “Miller will be expected to come and write NCLB version 2.0, and he’s going to have to decide how bold he’s willing to be. There’s going to be a real war within the Democratic Party.”

If new members or rank-and-file Democrats hear concerns from their constituents about the No Child Left Behind law, they could press for changes, appealing to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who will likely become the speaker of the House if the Democrats retake the chamber. But Rep. Pelosi and Rep. Miller have a close working relationship, Mr. Jennings said.

“I find it hard to believe she would propose something much different from what he would want, unless she has newly minted members of Congress who want change,” Mr. Jennings said.

Some observers do not expect a groundswell of opposition to the school law to materialize in Congress.

“There’s not going to be tremendous pressure to gut this law,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director of Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that supports the law for its emphasis on raising the achievement of all students.

“The critics are obviously the most vocal, but there really is a silent majority in the middle,” he said, who feel the law is the right direction for K-12 education.

Associate Editor David J. Hoff contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week as Political Shift Could Temper NCLB Resolve


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