'No Child Left Behind' losing steam
Support for No Child Left Behind – President Bush's signature education reform – is fraying as it heads into reauthorization this year.Skip to next paragraph
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The heaviest criticism is coming from within his own party. Conservative Republicans in the House and Senate introduced bills last week that allow states to opt out of most of the law's requirements, while keeping federal funding. Backers of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) say that move would gut the law.
Even supporters say that changes are needed.
"This is a critical year. It's very important that we perfect and tweak NCLB as we move forward," US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told urban school leaders in Washington this week. "There are lots of forces aligning on both sides of the poles to unravel or unwind NCLB, but I don't think that's going to happen," she told the Council of the Great City Schools.
At the heart of this sweeping education reform is a mandate that states annually test students in Grades 3 through 8 in reading and math. Schools that fail to show "adequate yearly progress" in student achievement face sanctions ranging from cuts in federal funding to a requirement to shut down.
The reform passed Congress with big bipartisan majorities in 2001. But problems in implementing NCLB have spawned criticism from principals, teachers, parents, education groups, and across the political spectrum.
Doubts loom especially large for GOP conservatives, who swept into power in the House in 1995 on a promise to reduce the size of the federal government and abolish the US Department of Education.
"It's pretty obvious that the consensus that led to [NCLB] six years ago is unraveling," says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former Reagan-era education official. "How badly it unravels over what period of time is what we don't know yet."
Democrats, who now control both the House and Senate, say that they initially supported NCLB on the promise that federal funding would give schools the resources they needed to implement the new law. While federal funding for public schools has increased by a third since the law was enacted, it still has been underfunded by some $70.9 billion, below levels authorized by law, say critics ranging from top Democrats to education associations and teachers unions.
"Year after year, the president sends us a budget that comes nowhere close to funding No Child Left Behind at an adequate level," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, who chairs the education subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, at a hearing on NCLB funding last week. The president's budget for fiscal year '08 underfunds the law by $14.8 billion, he adds. "The numbers have gotten almost laughable."
Democrats also aim to revise aspects of how the law is implemented, including revising strategies for turning around low-performing schools. Of some 90,000 public schools, about 9,000 have been targeted by NCLB as needing improvement. "We want to make turning around our most struggling schools a priority in this reauthorization," says Roberto Rodriguez, senior education adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. That panel is considering shifting to alternative measures of "adequate yearly progress," including models that account for the improvement of individual students over a school year, rather than whether they meet target proficiency standards.