Political Shifts Cloud Outlook for Renewal of Federal Education Law

By Michelle R. Davis — December 13, 2005 9 min read
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A shifting political landscape could significantly affect the upcoming congressional review of the No Child Left Behind Act, even as states and school districts continue to grapple with the requirements of the nearly 4-year-old federal law.

The law is slated for reauthorization in 2007, and that process is starting now, at least informally, as education groups poll their members for ideas, and policymakers consider proposals for change that have already been put forward.

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But all sides are peering into a murky future. The players and alliances surrounding the law’s renewal are sure to differ in some ways from the lineup in 2001, when a bipartisan group of legislators hammered out the current provisions with the Bush administration.

A wild card is the political stature of President Bush in the remaining years of his presidency. The No Child Left Behind law, which drew on Mr. Bush’s approach to school improvement while he was governor of Texas, was a centerpiece of his first-term agenda. It passed Congress at a time of national harmony after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Mr. Bush signed the measure in January 2002 with the support of prominent Democrats.

Such political togetherness now is rare, the president’s popularity has fallen, and pundits have begun tagging Mr. Bush with the lame-duck label.

Such factors could cause the process to bog down before a new version of the law—itself a renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965—is finally approved. After all, the last reauthorization had been due to occur under President Bill Clinton in 1999.

“It might start now, but it’s going to take years and years and years,” Vic Klatt, a lobbyist for the Washington-based firm Van Scoyoc Associates and a former aide to Republicans on the House education committee, said of the NCLB reauthorization. “To make big changes, … all the stars have to be aligned.”

Changes in the Lineup

Ever since its enactment, the law’s supporters have fought off legislative challenges to the statute itself. Instead, the U.S. Department of Education has promoted the use of regulatory flexibility allowed under the law to help deal with problems in its implementation.

But as reauthorization hearings get under way—some likely as soon as 2006—new personalities may alter the terrain. Those changes may extend all the way to the White House, depending on how long the process takes.

During the last go-round, the “big four”—then-Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., of the Senate education committee and the ranking committee Republican, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., as well as House education committee Chairman John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and ranking committee Democrat George Miller of California—worked together with the White House to craft the bill and push it through Congress.

But Rep. Boehner’s term as chairman expires at the end of 2006, and a new commitee leader—possibly Rep. Howard “Buck” P. McKeon, R-Calif., if the Republicans keep control of the House—will take his spot.

The Senate education committee chairmanship has already changed hands twice since 2001, passing from Sen. Kennedy to Sen. Gregg with a change of party control in the Senate, and more recently to Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo. Mr. Enzi, a strong supporter of public schools who has particular concerns about the No Child Left Behind law’s effect on rural areas, could lead the reauthorization in new directions.

Sen. Enzi said last month that it was “too early to tell yet” how reauthorization would go. “We have 39 reauthorizations to come up before that,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Boehner stressed that the process was ongoing as lawmakers evaluate how the current law is being implemented and look to the future.

“The reauthorization process entails a lot more than writing a bill and passing it through committee,” said Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

New chairmen in both the House and the Senate may vary in their commitment to the law’s original tenets, analysts say.

The personnel shifts “help increase the likelihood of changes to the law, because there’s less pride of authorship,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, which sued the Department of Education last April over the law.

Seeking Input

The two key Democratic players, Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller, have held firm on the core mission of the law—despite pressure from some liberal-leaning groups and misgivings about what they see as low funding levels. Depending on the outcome of the 2006 midterm elections, which could shift party control of the House, the Senate, or both, Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller could end up at the helms of the education committees.

“Mr. Miller wants to hear from people all over the country—educators, parents, and experts, among others—about their experience with the law,” said Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Rep. Miller, who stressed that reauthorization was still a while off. “He is actively seeking their input as reauthorization nears.”

When the law was first enacted four years ago, many conservative Republicans had concerns about its far-reaching federal mandates, but were willing to give President Bush the benefit of the doubt. Now, some of them may no longer be willing to follow his lead.

Many lawmakers, meanwhile, have been bombarded in their home states by criticisms of the federal law’s effects in such areas as state spending and the amount of testing in local schools.

“I don’t think five people get to sit in a room and work it out this time,” said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, referring to the next version of the law.

Proposals Vary

When it comes to specifics on how the law should be changed, many groups are pushing for the use of “growth models” to measure schools’ progress.

Instead of focusing on the percent of students who score at or above an absolute level of performance, such models track the progress that individual students make from one year to the next.

On Nov. 18, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that up to 10 states could participate in a pilot project that uses growth models under the NCLB law, in part to help inform the reauthorization debate.

“The conversation about growth models is clearly going to be a very important part of the reauthorization discussion,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that strongly supports the law.

Others predict that Congress will revisit, and possibly tighten, the law’s teacher-quality provisions next time around. And, those observers say, the lawmakers will have to address continuing tensions about how to include students with disabilities and those learning English in state systems of testing and accountability.

President Bush, for his part, has sought to extend the No Child Left Behind Act’s provisions further into high schools. So far, there’s been little appetite on Capitol Hill to do so. But recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, underscoring the poor reading performance of 8th graders, may amplify the drumbeat for improvements at the secondary school level.

In addition, many people are pushing for a new look at the law’s consequences for schools and districts identified as needing improvement. Some want to target the sanctions—most notably, requirements for public school choice and for tutoring services—solely to the student subgroups that have failed to meet annual performance targets. Others want to reverse the order of the sanctions, so that schools can offer students free tutoring before giving them the option of transferring to higher-performing schools.

Other policy experts want to add incentives that would encourage districts to provide parents with more choices for students in low-performing schools. And many want to build on the law’s requirement that schools in need of improvement write school improvement plans, to ensure that those plans actually have some teeth and that schools have the support to carry them out.

“While it’s important to acknowledge that schools need to improve, it’s also important to have a good process in place to help them,” Mr. Wiener said.

Well ahead of the scheduled reauthorization, some Republicans have introduced bills calling for changes to the law.

Among them is Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, who has introduced broad legislation that would loosen some of the NCLB requirements. Among other changes, the bill would allow states to use localized tests to assess students, and not have to report test results of some English-language learners to the federal government.

Getting It Done

Rep. Terry belongs to the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 100 of the current 230 GOP members of the House. The group is organized to promote an agenda that includes limiting the reach of the federal government. Given its numbers, it could play a pivotal role in the reauthorization process.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who is said to be considering a run for his party’s 2008 presidential nomination, has been a vocal critic of the law’s demands. Earlier this year, he introduced a bill to give states—like Virginia—with strong accountability systems some relief from the law’s requirements.

Two other Republicans, Sens. Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine, have introduced legislation to amend the No Child Left Behind Act by providing greater local control and a number of flexibility measures. Those provisions would include new ways of meeting the mandate for “highly qualified” teachers and of rating the academic performance of students with disabilities.

Meanwhile, President Bush’s political clock is ticking. By early 2009, his second term will be over, and if the reauthorization takes that long, another president will be calling the shots.

“A lot of folks in the administration would love to get it done on schedule because it really is one of the president’s primary domestic legacies,” said Eugene W. Hickok, a former deputy secretary at the Department of Education who left in January and is now a senior policy director at the Washington lobbying firm Dutko Worldwide. “Before I left, the folks on the Hill had the same sentiment, but it’s awfully tough, and reauthorizations seldom happen on schedule.”

Even if the reauthorization is completed on President Bush’s watch, some analysts and lobbyists say it will be hard for him to hold on to the law’s core mission.

And if it is pushed back beyond the 2008 elections, all bets are off, they say, given a new president’s likely wish to put his or her stamp on the premier federal legislation in K-12 education.

“Whoever is the next president, they would likely be less supportive of No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Packer of the NEA predicted. “It’s in the president’s advantage to get it done while he’s still president.”


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