President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind law is about to get an overhaul courtesy of the Democratic Congress, and the name itself could be one of the casualties.
Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), the 16-term veteran on the Education and Labor Committee, said he was the first to propose renaming the measure, noting that the education bill has been renamed every time it has been reauthorized.
The name change will be made “not just for the sake of cosmetics but will reflect the changes we are making,” Kildee said. “We’re trying to come up with a bill that’s more acceptable to the education community.” A new name “would communicate the fact that we are listening to them and making substantive changes.”
Kildee said whatever name lawmakers end up with, it should include the word “growth” because the new legislation will transition to a new scoring system that tracks the growth of individual students, addressing a key complaint about the current standards, which grade schools based on succeeding groups of students rather than measuring growth over the course of the year.
“I believe No Child Left Behind has lost so much credibility that it needs to be rebranded,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said this week. Clyburn said the law needs to be overhauled to ensure fairness among districts and states, complaining that the law encourages states to lowball standards to meet yearly improvement goals, while states with higher standards, like South Carolina, are punished.
House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) is working with ranking member Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) to craft a bill with strong bipartisan support, but they have to face concerns from both the right and left flanks, with teacher’s unions and others unhappy about some provisions and conservatives concerned about federal meddling in local affairs.
“Right now we are working together in good faith,” McKeon said. “George Miller really wants to get it done.” McKeon strongly supports the law but says it needs to be tweaked to deal with inequities. Changes in the works include making accommodations for schools with large numbers of English as a Second Language students and special education students.
Schools with large numbers of students transitioning in and out of the school over a year are at a disadvantage under the current system, McKeon and others acknowledge. “That’s what we’ve been working on trying to fix,” McKeon said. “It’s an example of how the process is supposed to work. Nothing is perfect.”
McKeon said he hopes the issue won’t devolve into partisan warfare the way immigration did. “My feeling is that education shouldn’t be partisan. If we get it done right, we should have a majority of both caucuses. I’m hoping that people won’t get locked in concrete over something that has got to be done.”
But the makeover comes as Bush’s clout on Capitol Hill has hit a new low, with some Republicans warning that No Child Left Behind could be a repeat of the meltdown on immigration legislation, where Bush’s own party abandoned him.
NCLB faces a revolt from some leading Republicans, including House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), House Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and numerous rank-and-file Members.
“My constituents hate it,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who has authored a bill turning NCLB into a block grant program, attracting 60 Republican co-sponsors so far. “People are teaching to the test, there are all kinds of federal mandates, the costs aren’t fully reimbursed and it is leading to soft discrimination because schools know which students are a danger to their meeting [the standards] and they encourage them to leave.”
Hoekstra argued that the rigidity of the federal standards penalize schools that attract large numbers of special education students, for example. “I think it’s very, very hard to be in Washington, D.C., and design a system for every school district in America.”
Hoekstra said Republicans are no longer willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt.
“The president is totally out of touch,” Hoekstra said. “Most Republicans supported this issue because they wanted to support a new president, not because it’s what they really believed.”
Hoekstra also noted that there has been significant opposition among key constituencies in local districts.
“This is the one program I can go to my traditional Democratic constituency groups and say I voted against and I get a standing ovation,” he said.
Kildee said another obstacle for the bill is that many freshmen on both sides of the aisle campaigned against NCLB.
“The freshmen are very concerned about No Child Left Behind so I think we have to make substantive changes but still have standards,” Kildee said.
Democrats also want a commitment from Bush that he will pony up more cash for the program next year. Democrats have estimated that Bush and the GOP-led Congress have underfunded the program by $55 billion to date.
“One [problem] is the funding and the other is the policy,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.). “The key is to make it clear to people that we are changing it in some significant ways,” regardless of what it’s called.
Senators are also getting into the naming game. Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) made his bid Wednesday, proposing the “All Students Can Achieve Act,” which would also move toward growth scoring and has the backing of Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is expected to unveil his version of the legislation after the August recess. The name has not yet been released.