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Talks Stall on No Child Left Behind

Efforts to reach a bipartisan deal on revamped No Child Left Behind legislation have broken down, with Republicans charging that House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) has refused to compromise.

Republicans said Wednesday that Miller has shown little to no willingness to accommodate their concerns about an erosion of accountability measures and a host of other issues with the bill and say that unless Miller shows new flexibility, Republicans will vote en masse to kill it.

“We’re still better off with current law,” said Education and Labor ranking member Howard McKeon (R-Calif.).

McKeon said his staff and Miller’s staff have been working together all year to try to work out a deal, but he said there are about 15 issues that have yet to be worked out.

A meeting last week between McKeon, Miller, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) yielded little progress, McKeon said. McKeon said Miller took a hard line and McKeon got the sense that “we could talk until we’re blue in the face and there aren’t going to be any changes.”

McKeon said without major changes to the bill, “I would not be able to support it, [Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio)] doesn’t support it, Castle doesn’t support it, the White House doesn’t support it. He has to pass it with Democratic votes.”

McKeon said that passing a bill with Democratic votes alone would seem doubtful given the attacks No Child Left Behind has gotten from some groups on the left — particularly teachers’ unions — and would not become law.

“Maybe when we get to markup, maybe he’ll show some willingness to work with us,” McKeon said of Miller. “He wants to bring it to the floor and I don’t see how it passes.”

Boehner, one of the architects of the original No Child Left Behind Act, said Wednesday that there has been no progress toward an agreement. “The accountability provisions in the draft are basically going to sell out poor children,” Boehner claimed. Boehner also said he objects to 28 new education programs he said Democrats have sought to add to the bill.

Miller said he remains hopeful that a bipartisan compromise can be reached that will improve the program while providing more flexibility for states, but he said he has been unable to get a meeting with Boehner to work out differences.

“I’ve been asking for a meeting with Mr. Boehner and Mr. McKeon for three weeks,” Miller said, adding that he was surprised at their comments. He said the Republicans know that he wants to move a bill to the floor before the end of the year and time is running short.

“We’re making that effort, but whether we’ll be successful remains to be seen,” Miller said of reaching a compromise.

Miller and Boehner bumped into one another a few weeks ago and Miller casually mentioned getting together for a meeting but didn’t follow up, according to Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy. Kennedy also noted that Boehner sent Miller a long letter over a month ago and has yet to receive a response.

“Pointing the finger at the Minority Leader for the lack of progress on a bill that still has yet to be written, introduced, or even given hearing in committee is somewhere between absurd and comical,” Kennedy said. “Whether it was three weeks ago — or five months ago when Democrats started promising the introduction of an NCLB reauthorization bill — Leader Boehner would have accepted a meeting invitation had one actually been extended to him. That has not been the case, and the chairman’s time might be better spent achieving some consensus among his own committee members for starters.”

The sniping over the bill came a day after President Bush called on Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, but without weakening accountability or the emphasis on math and reading.

But Miller said President Bush’s decision in past years not to fully fund No Child Left Behind has undermined support for the legislation. “I don’t think the president has a lot of credibility on this one,” Miller said.

“Clearly if you travel in the country and in the education community, they don’t feel this law is fair, flexible and funded,” Miller said.

No Child Left Behind is one of the few pieces of legislation that likely will require a bipartisan vote in the House and faces significant opposition in each party. More than 50 Republicans have backed a bill that would essentially gut the legislation and turn it into a block grant program, with House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) the most prominent opponent of the law.

Republicans and Democrats generally agree that the original law has flaws that unfairly penalize some schools. Both sides want to incorporate a “growth” model that will test how much a particular student learns over the course of a year rather than giving one test. Schools with large turnover each year can be penalized if someone with relatively little time in that school counts against their results, and inadequate or no credit can be given to significant improvements in scores that don’t quite reach a passing grade.

Miller also has sought to expand the ability of states to use other tests beyond math and reading to show improvement, arguing that No Child Left Behind is too narrowly focused.

“This is a serious effort to fix the flaws in No Child Left Behind,” Miller said.

But McKeon said Republicans don’t want to weaken the accountability rules that focus on math and reading to include tests on other subjects.

“Either you can read or you can’t,” McKeon said. “Either you can do simple math or you can’t. The main purpose of No Child Left Behind was to make sure kids can read and do basic math. It’s starting to work.”

McKeon also objects to giving union bosses in each state a veto over controversial new merit pay provisions for teachers, among other issues.

Meanwhile, the political clock is ticking.

McKeon acknowledged that there is a concern that if the bill doesn’t get out of the gate this year, it’ll be killed next year during the heat of the presidential elections. But McKeon said that shouldn’t be the chief concern, explaining, “I’m more concerned about getting it done right than rushing to meet an artificial deadline.”

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