Obama on No Child Left Behind: Get me rewrite
My colleague Nick Anderson reported today that President Obama has green-lighted another attempt to revise the No Child Left Behind education law. Here is a guest item on this development from The Post's national education writer.
Every year since 2007, the education world has wondered whether Congress will revise the law many teachers love to hate: No Child Left Behind. Every year, lawmakers have punted. Will 2011 be any different?
There are plenty of reasons for skepticism. First, congressional Republicans have their eyes on other matters, including spending cuts. If the Education Department budget takes a hit -- and it's hard to see how it won't be a big, inviting target for the new House GOP majority -- that might not bode well for bipartisan compromise on the school testing and accountability policies at the heart of the 2002 education law. Remember that President George W. Bush secured a big majority for passage of the law in part through the promise of funding increases. Money greases deals. Budget cuts don't.
Second, many Republicans are not keen on giving President Obama a major domestic policy win as he heads into a reelection campaign. Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy and other analysts have made this point. Call this the 2012 problem.
Third, both parties have well-known internal debates over education reform. Some Republicans don't think the Education Department should exist, and at least a few of them got elected last year. Their view is not shared by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who helped write No Child Left Behind, or by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former education secretary himself, but it certainly poses a complication as the GOP begins negotiations.
As for Democrats, many believe teacher performance pay and tenure/evaluation reform are misplaced priorities when school budgets are getting whacked. Such issues helped sink the first attempt at bipartisan rewrite of NCLB in fall 2007. But Obama continues to support reform in this key area. Watch out for Democratic feuds on this front.
Despite these challenges, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made clear the other day in an interview with The Post's editorial board and news staff that the administration is eager to seize the chance for a deal. The biggest reason why it may succeed is that the law itself is nearing a major deadline with a goal that is impossible to fulfill. Call this the 2014 opportunity.
Under the law, schools must aim every year to advance toward a goal of all students passing reading and math tests by 2014. (By all students, we mean those tested in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and we acknowledge there are caveats and exceptions. Those of you who remind us of "safe harbors," "N-size," and special circumstances for certain English language learners and certain disabled students -- we hear you and salute you.)
That 2014 goal of universal proficiency was distant and manageable in the early years after the law was enacted. It made a great talking point. And it was, of course, literally, the essence of the brand No Child Left Behind. Now that the goal is near, it has become unmanageable. Educators have long known that, with isolated exceptions, schools are not going to be able to achieve perfect proficiency ratings every year. Students don't learn that way. Test scores don't work that way. Any exams that would yield repeatedly perfect scores wouldn't be worth much.
As the number of schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" toward the 2014 goal rises every year, (there are thousands and thousands) so do complaints about the law. That ultimately builds pressure for congressional action.
Here is the current take on the rewrite possibility from the new chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.): “No matter who you talk to – parents and teachers, superintendents and governors, Republicans and Democrats – everyone agrees this law needs reform. My goal is to pull back federal involvement in the day-to-day operation of our classrooms so the innovation and accountability being driven by states and local schools has a chance to succeed, and I hope we can find agreement in Washington to allow that to happen.”
Kline has suggested breaking the rewrite into small pieces and moving a series of bills through the House. (Note that it is a suggestion, not a pledge.) The Senate, led by Democrats, would probably tackle the issue in a different way. Here is Duncan's take on the bit-at-a-time strategy: "I'm open to that conversation. I want to understand what it means."
Duncan added, "If you fix one tiny piece and leave a lot that's broken, that would be less than optimal to me."
That sounds to me like the legislative game is on. But whether Obama will get a bill to sign this year or next is another question altogether.
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