Races for Congress Have Sparse Debate on Education Issues

By Alyson Klein — October 28, 2008 6 min read
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The next Congress will have some big education items on its to-do list: reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, determining the fate of the private-school-voucher program in the District of Columbia, and finishing the spending bill for the fiscal year that began this month.

But congressional candidates from both major parties aren’t being very specific about how they would address those issues, in part because other concerns, particularly the economy, are dominating House and Senate races. And it seems that contenders aren’t really sure what to say about the most pressing federal question in education: How should policymakers reshape the nearly 7-year-old NCLB law?

As a result, candidates are largely sidestepping the issue—or offering broad, largely critical rhetoric on the law without much policy detail, said Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee.

“Nobody gets beyond bashing tests and saying we need more money for NCLB,” Mr. Williams said. “The law is extremely complicated; even discussions about how it should be fixed are very complicated. We don’t see politicians getting beyond the lines we’ve heard a lot.”

Democrats, who won control of both chambers of Congress in the 2006 elections, are widely expected to have bolstered their majorities when the 111th Congress convenes in January. They may pick up anywhere from 25 to 30 seats in the House of Representatives, and six to nine seats in the Senate, according to The Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks elections.

Some Democrats in tight races, in particular, are taking a hard line against the federal school law—quite likely with an eye to winning the votes of education professionals.

“People who are going to vote education this year are disproportionately teachers and people who work in schools,” said Robert Gordon, who was Sen. John Kerry’s domestic-policy adviser during the Massachusetts Democrat’s 2004 presidential campaign and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. “Those people do, on average, have a very negative opinion of NCLB.”

Teaching to the Test

But David Winston, a pollster who generally works with GOP candidates, said that the name “No Child Left Behind” may be unpopular, but voters still support the law’s core tenets of accountability and standards.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., a freshman and a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, is in a tough bid for re-election against former Rep. Jeb Bradley, whom she defeated narrowly in 2006.

That year, as a candidate, Ms. Shea-Porter referred to the NCLB law as an attempt by right-wing Republicans to “undermine our confidence in our public schools.”

Two years of service on the education committee, led by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., one of the key architects of the law, hasn’t significantly toned down Rep. Shea-Porter’s rhetoric. On her campaign Web site, she contends that “we are crippling the teachers and kids with this ‘teach to the test’ mentality,” and says that Congress must “scrap” the law.

Minnesota U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken, a Democrat, debates Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, in Duluth on Oct. 16. The two have different views on school accountability issues.

The 3.2 million-member National Education Association and its New Hampshire affiliate have placed a high priority on backing Rep. Shea-Porter, said Karen White, the organization’s political director. (“Unions Battle for Democrats in Swing States,” Oct. 29, 2008.) The union has been one of the most outspoken critics of the NCLB law.

State union leaders were particularly impressed that Rep. Shea-Porter held an event in New Hampshire 1st District with Rep. Miller last year. The two lawmakers gave educators an opportunity to voice their concerns about the NCLB law.

Last month, Rep. Miller held a similar event with another freshman Democrat on the education committee, Rep. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, who is facing a rematch with former Rep. Melissa Hart, a Republican whom he unseated two years ago.

Minnesota Race

In Minnesota, Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, is facing a strong challenge from Al Franken, the comedian and former writer for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Minnesota U.S. Senate candidate Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, debates Al Franken, a Democrat, in Duluth on Oct. 16. The two have different views on school accountability issues.

Mr. Franken has been an outspoken critic of the NCLB law on the campaign trail; he held a news conference in August to urge an overhaul of the measure, according to published reports. The Democrat even lambasted the law on the CBS show “Late Night with David Letterman” in March.

“I believe the No Child Left Behind Act must be dramatically reformed or scrapped altogether,” Mr. Franken, who has been politically engaged for several years as a liberal writer and radio host, says on his campaign Web site.

Sen. Coleman, by contrast, sponsored a bill embraced by many champions of a strong federal accountability system for schools. The measure, which is based largely on the recommendations issued last year by the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, would direct the National Assessment Governing Board to establish voluntary national standards and tests. And it would call for states to develop data systems that tracked individual students’ progress, in part to measure teacher effectiveness.

Some candidates in tight races have used their opponents’ vote for the NCLB law in 2001 against them, even if they have had a change of heart since then.

In North Carolina’s 8th district, for example, Larry Kissell, a Democrat and a social studies teacher at East Montgomery High School in Biscoe, has been hammering his opponent for voting in favor of the law. Mr. Kissell came within about 330 votes of unseating the Republican incumbent, Rep. Robin Hayes, in 2006.

Despite his initial support for the NCLB law, Rep. Hayes has signed on to a bill sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., that would significantly revise the law’s accountability system, giving more flexibility to states and schools.

The move hasn’t dampened Mr. Kissell’s criticism of Mr. Hayes.

“If it was so bad, why did they vote for it the first place?” said Thomas Thacker, a spokesman for the Kissell campaign.

Republican Bob Schaffer, left, and Rep. Mark Udall, center, a Democrat, discuss debate rules with KMGH-TV News Director Jeff Harris in Denver on Oct. 16. They are seeking an open U.S. Senate seat from Colorado, and have discussed the No Child Left Behind Act.

Rep. Hayes said in a statement that he was working with other lawmakers to address concerns about the law, and had helped get North Carolina included in the Department of Education’s growth-model pilot project.

At least one Republican candidate is taking a similar approach to Mr. Kissell’s: former Rep. Bob Schaffer of Colorado. As a member of the House education committee in 2001, Rep. Schaffer vehemently opposed the law as an unwarranted expansion of federal authority over education, which he views as the responsibility of states and localities.

Now, as a candidate for an open Senate seat, Mr. Schaffer, has attacked his Democratic rival, Rep. Mark Udall, for voting for the law.

Rep. Udall, meanwhile, has introduced a bill that would allow schools more flexibility in measuring the progress of English-language learners under the NCLB law and make other changes to the law’s accountability system.

Teacher Accountability

Issues such as teacher performance pay have been largely overlooked in congressional campaigns. But there are some exceptions.

In Washington state’s 8th district, Darcy Burner, a Democrat and former manager at the Microsoft Corp., wants to consider merit pay for teachers. And in her House bid, she’s made teacher accountability part of her message, running an ad this month that highlights her support for the issue.

“We want schools that reward the best teachers in the system,” the ad says. “And we need to make sure that both teachers and parents are held accountable as well for giving kids the tools they need.”

The NEA is supporting Ms. Burner’s opponent, Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican whom Ms. Burner narrowly missed unseating in 2006.

Ms. White of the NEA said Ms. Burner’s support for merit pay wasn’t the reason for the union’s endorsement of her opponent.

“[Rep. Reichert] has been a great vote for public education,” Ms. White said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as Races for Congress Have Sparse Debate On Education Issues


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