WASHINGTON — Support for No Child Left Behind – President Bush's signature education reform – is fraying as it heads into reauthorization this year.
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.
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.
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.
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.