No Child Left Behind, the education law President Bush signed in 2002 with backing from most Democrats in Congress, has now become a law panned by Democrats, Republicans, teachers, parents and superintendents alike.
Yet, while the Democratic presidential candidates are proposing to gut much of Bush's record if they're elected, they're much more cautious on NCLB, which requires yearly tests of students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Under the law, students who attend persistently low-scoring schools are allowed to transfer to better ones.
In unveiling his national education policy in Des Moines today, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards said "NCLB has lost all credibility with the teachers and principals we need to make it work." But he did not join one of his 2008 Democratic rivals, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, in calling for dumping the law. Instead, he proposed modest changes, such as improving the yearly tests that states give to students and shifting the way schools are measured to reduce the number of schools that are labeled "failing" by the federal government.
Edwards would keep the sanctions on schools where most students are failing, meaning the students in those schools could transfer or get free tutoring, but would limit sanctions for schools where only small groups of students are not doing well, like 5th graders in math. Under current law, schools with small-groups of students not performing well are also considered failing schools. Edwards would continue to have test scores broken by ethnicity and race, as civil rights groups that generally support Democrats have long supported that part of Bush's education law, believing it means schools will focus more attention on black and Hispanic students.
The biggest emphasis from Edwards was not on testing, but on improving conditions for teachers. "Teachers, not tests, are the single most important factor in successful schools," Edwards said.
But unlike Sen. Barack Obama, who has risked the ire of teachers by calling for increasing teacher pay based on how their students do on tests and in other measures, Edwards proposed giving every teacher in low-poverty schools that do well on tests $5,000 in bonus pay.
--Perry Bacon Jr.
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