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'No Child Left Behind' losing steam

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But Democrats say they are still committed to a key assumption of the NCLB law: that the federal government should be involved in leveraging higher achievement in local schools. That is not the case among Republicans.

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On the House side, 52 Republicans, including minority whip Roy Blunt, are cosponsoring the A-Plus Act, introduced by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R) of Michigan. Thirty-three Republicans voted against the NCLB bill, most of whom are cosponsoring the Hoekstra bill. This bill, along with a companion bill in the Senate, revives a formula that drove GOP education policy in the 1990s: that the best route to accountability is through local control and parental choice, not a bigger federal footprint on education.

"We must move education decisionmaking out of Washington closer to where it belongs – with parents and teachers," said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, a cosponsor of the Senate version of this bill and typically one of the strongest supporters of the Bush administration in the Senate.

In a bid to bridge the gap in GOP ranks, House majority leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio is reminding Republicans that choice was once a part of the No Child Left Behind bill, but was dropped during negotiations with Democrats. Mr. Boehner was one of the original sponsors of NCLB with Rep. George Miller (D) of California. President Bush signed the bill into law in Boehner's district.

"As the No Child Left Behind Act comes up for reauthorization, House Republicans will challenge Democrats to explain why we can't provide more choices for parents and more local control for states and communities that are willing to commit to increasing student achievement," Boehner said in a statement.

Few use school choice provision

Under the terms of existing NCLB law, students attending chronically low- performing schools can choose to attend more successful public schools. But the provision has been little used, because so few seats are available in alternative schools. Conservatives want to offer such students $4,000 scholarships to attend private schools, including religious schools.

"Even the two relatively minor choice options in NCLB have proven to be relatively ineffective because the powers that be have found ways to avoid them," says Michael Franc, vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "The more robust choice provisions never made it through. Conservatives believe that choice is the ultimate accountability."

But the choice option sets up a conflict within the bipartisan NCLB coalition that could sink prospects for reauthorization this year – putting adjustments to the bill beyond the 2008 presidential election.

Democrats, strongly backed by teachers unions, say that private-school vouchers would drain critically needed federal dollars from public schools. They oppose the move.

"There is still strong middle ground for NCLB," says Sandy Kress, a former top Bush education adviser, who now consults with education and business groups. But he warns that the opt-out proposed by Republicans could sink the reauthorization. "Republicans used to stand for rigor and standards, but no money for education. Now they seem to be for the money, but no standards."

Meanwhile, Congress is pursuing hearings on the new law in both the House and Senate, with hopes of taking up legislation by early summer. Education groups are urging early action.