KC Star – Will the No Child act be left behind?

Posted on Sun, Apr. 15, 2007

Will the No Child act be left behind?
Former core supporters of Bush’s education law are seeking alternatives.
The Star’s Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON | Five years ago, President Bush persuaded a Republican-led Congress to pass a landmark law that forces schools to give students more tests.

Now his own party is leading a revolt.

When Congress signed off on the legislation in December 2001, Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, said it represented “a new era” that would benefit students across the country, and he saluted Bush’s leadership. Brownback now would be happy if states could just opt out of the federal testing mandates.

Ditto for Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri , the second-ranking Republican in the House. After co-sponsoring the 2001 legislation, the minority whip now says that he regrets ever voting for it.

Is No Child Left Behind about to get left behind?

While no one is predicting its immediate demise, discontent with the law’s mandates is growing on Capitol Hill, and change appears to be in the offing.

So far, 66 Republicans — 59 in the House and seven in the Senate — have signed on to the A-Plus Act, legislation that would allow states to sidestep the yearly tests. Many Democrats want to alter the testing requirements, giving states more leeway in how they measure progress, especially for disabled students.

Even some strong advocates acknowledge that at least some tweaks — and more money for schools — will be required before the law can be renewed.

In 2001, critics of No Child Left Behind feared the law would give Washington too much power over local schools. Much of the suspicion came from conservative Republicans, who nevertheless bowed to the popular first-term president after he made education a big issue in his 2000 campaign.

The president prevailed by arguing that federally mandated tests would put a spotlight on failing schools and pressure them to improve.

Since then, Bush’s popularity has plummeted, while teachers and school officials have stepped up their criticism of the law. Opponents say test scores have risen only because schools have focused so intensely on teaching the basics, often at the expense of programs for gifted children.

A spokeswoman for Blunt said he changed his mind this year after meeting with teachers and school officials in southwest Missouri . They convinced him the law was too onerous.

Other Republicans and some Democrats say much the same thing to explain why they want the law changed.

But ironically, some of the strongest backing for No Child Left Behind is now coming from top-ranked Democrats, who charge that Republicans want to abandon testing requirements while still giving federal money to schools.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and the chairman of the Senate education committee, said the Republican plan is an attempt “to turn back the clock on reform.” In 2001, he worked closely with the Bush administration to craft the law. He said that it has become “a national commitment” and that it would be wrong to abandon it.

After meeting with business, education and civil rights leaders on Thursday, Bush said that “there is a universal belief” that No Child Left Behind should be renewed and that it will be necessary to keep the United States competitive with other nations.

In a speech in Indiana last month, Bush vowed to oppose any attempts at “watering down” the law, which he called one of the most important of his presidency. He said the law “is working across the country” and, as proof, he noted that test scores have improved and that the achievement gap between white and minority-race students is closing.

Before the law was passed, he said, schools could “quit early on a child” and just move them on to another grade, but that’s no longer allowed.

“In life, if you lower the bar, you get lousy results,” Bush said. “If you keep raising that bar, it’s amazing what can happen.”

The tests are aimed at making all students proficient in reading and math by 2014, but teachers and school officials have complained bitterly, saying they put far too much emphasis on a single test score. Members of Congress have been getting an earful in their districts as they prepare for their upcoming deliberations.

Rep. Dennis Moore, a Kansas Democrat, is among them. After conducting a “listening tour” on No Child Left Behind earlier this month, he released a survey that found that 40 percent of the teachers in his district want the law repealed, while 90 percent feel that some subjects — mainly science and social studies — are being shortchanged due to the emphasis on testing.

Moore is the chief sponsor of a separate bill that would allow school districts to suspend the federal testing requirements until Congress approves $55 billion in additional funding.

The Republican A-Plus Act would allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind in different ways. Under the House bill, states could hold a referendum, or two of three entities — the governor, the legislature and the state’s top education officials — could make the decision. Under the Senate bill, states could negotiate a charter with the federal government allowing them to bypass the testing requirements.

Brownback said that schools have made “great strides” under No Child Left Behind but that it’s time to give states “the freedom and flexibility” they need to establish their own educational guidelines.

Blunt sounded a similar theme when he broke with the president last month, saying it’s time to put parents and local officials back in charge of schools: “As Congress looks to update No Child Left Behind this year, we would do well to keep that principle in mind.”

Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican, who met with 30 school superintendents in his district earlier this month, said it has become clear that the federal education strategy isn’t working.

“We have this current one-size-fits-all, and there’s something to be said about 50 state laboratories that can come up with good ideas,” Tiahrt said. “Personally, I’d like to see Kansas opt out.”

The legislation is the latest in a string of challenges to No Child Left Behind.

The state of Connecticut sued the federal government two years ago, saying that Congress had failed to provide enough financial support to implement the law.

Virginia and Arizona have questioned rules dealing with the testing of students with limited English skills.

Utah, meanwhile, has tussled with the U.S. Department of Education over a requirement that every teacher must have the equivalent of a college degree in the subjects that they teach.

To reach Rob Hotakainen, call (202) 383-0009 or send e-mail to rhotakainen @mcclatchydc.com. © 2007 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.kansascity.com