Some Ideas May Not Wait for NCLB Renewal

By David J. Hoff — November 28, 2006 4 min read
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Even if the Democratic-led Congress doesn’t reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act in the next two years, Democrats will have plenty of chances to push forward with their K-12 priorities.

The Democrats who will lead the House and Senate education panels have introduced bills in the current Republican-led Congress to improve the quality of teaching and make states’ standards more challenging, and they may pursue those agendas whether or not the NCLB law is revised in the two-year lifespan of the 110th Congress, which begins in January.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who will become the chairman of the Senate education committee next year, will make improving the quality of teaching “his number-one priority” for K-12, according to Carmel Martin, the senator’s chief education adviser. He also will push his existing economic-competitiveness bill that includes proposed incentives for states to make their academic standards more challenging, Ms. Martin said at a Nov. 16 panel discussion on Capitol Hill.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the presumptive incoming chairman of the House education committee, “will move forward fast and furiously” on his plan to entice college students into the teaching profession as well as lure them into schools that need them the most, Alice Cain, an aide to Mr. Miller, said at the same panel. Mr. Kennedy has introduced a version of that bill in the Senate.

Although Sen. Kennedy’s and Rep. Miller’s bills address problems associated with the nearly 5-year-old No Child Left Behind law, they don’t necessarily have to be part of the law’s reauthorization for them to move through Congress, Ms. Martin and Ms. Cain said. They could be added to bills aimed at improving U.S. economic competitiveness or reauthorizing federal higher education programs.

Low Priority

President Bush has said he wants the NCLB law—one of the top priorities of his first term—to be reauthorized on time in 2007, but many in Washington say Congress will face many obstacles in finishing the complex bill next year or even by the end of 2008.

Democrats have said that improving college affordability will be their top education priority when they formally assume the control of the House and the Senate they won in the midterm elections. Many newly elected Democrats, meanwhile, ran in opposition to the NCLB law’s wide-ranging requirements on student achievement and teacher qualifications. (“Democratic Majority to Put Education Policy on Agenda,” Nov. 15, 2006.)

And the K-12 law will also fall behind several other initiatives on the legislative calendar. Sen. Kennedy said in a Nov. 16 speech that he would put raising the minimum wage, rewriting federal laws regarding medical research using embryonic stem cells, and making college affordable at the top of the agenda for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law fell lower on his list of priorities.

Sen. Kennedy, who was an author of the bipartisan NCLB law in 2001, made the comments shortly after Senate Democrats formally named him to be the chairman of the committee starting in January.

But even if the law’s reauthorization doesn’t advance in the next Congress, important issues facing states and schools because of the law may still make the Democrats’ agenda.

Rep. Miller, who was also an author of the law and is a strong supporter of its requirement that all teachers be highly qualified under their state’s definition, has sponsored a bill that would try to improve the quality of teachers going into schools. It also would seek to fix the problem of the best teachers’ gravitating to schools with the highest-achieving students.

Called the Teacher Excellence for All Children Act, or TEACH Act, Mr. Miller’s proposal would offer financial benefits such as prepaid college tuition in exchange for a student’s agreement to teach mathematics or science—the two subjects generally deemed most in need of high-quality teachers.

Under the bill, “we would make some progress on this teacher-distribution issue and attract the kind of teacher we want,” said Cynthia G. Brown, the education policy director for the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning think tank in Washington that supports the bill.

Improving Standards

Sen. Kennedy has sponsored the TEACH Act in the Senate, but he also has a plan to address the criticisms that states are setting their academic standards too low under the No Child Left Behind law.

Under the competitiveness bill he introduced last year, Mr. Kennedy would give states the chance to request a federal analysis of their reading, mathematics, and science standards and compare them with the proficiency levels set for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The process could give state policymakers some “political cover” they need to take the potentially unpopular step of raising standards, said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that supports the development of national standards and a national test.

But it also might be a step backward, said Mr. Petrilli, a former Education Department official during President Bush’s first term, because any effort by Congress to encourage national standards could stall the effort because they would lack the credibility of private groups or states’ consortia.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Some Ideas May Not Wait for NCLB Renewal


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