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Can Obama, Congress meet minds to revamp No Child Left Behind?

A new version of No Child Left Behind may target only the bottom 5 percent of schools for intervention. For most schools, mandates based on student test scores would be rolled back.

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Expect heated debate over how to improve teacher quality, for instance. And some Democrats oppose the push to expand charter schools.

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The percentage of education-policy and Washington insiders who said they thought ESEA would be reauthorized in 2011 dropped from 53 percent this past July to just 32 percent in December, according to a survey Mr. Rotherham conducts for Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting group in Washington.

A lot will depend on new House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio. He knows education issues well, having helped shape NCLB as chairman of the House committee overseeing education in 2001. But he hasn't yet signaled how high a priority revising the law will be. And some newly elected Republican representatives campaigned on getting rid of the Department of Education.

To get something passed this year, "it would have to be a pretty significant rollback of No Child Left Behind" so that there's less federal involvement in all but the worst schools, says Michael Petrilli, an education expert and vice president at the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington. That would spark a fight with some supporters of NCLB in Congress, he says, but it might have good prospects because the Obama administration backs such an approach.

Since ESEA is such a large bill, encompassing everything from school accountability to native-American education, lawmakers may decide to take it up in pieces rather than all at once, suggested the new chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, John Kline (R) of Minn., in a December roundtable discussion with reporters.

But some observers say that may be a political tactic to make it difficult for significant education reforms to get to Obama's desk this year.

"To me, that’s like code for gridlock ... [because passing] five small bills is almost five times as much work as one big one," says Charles Barone, director of federal policy at the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform and a former staffer on the House education committee.

Whether or not the law is revised this year, one thing is clear: Fewer federal dollars will flow to education. With the stimulus money all distributed and a spending-cut mood on Capitol Hill, further reforms will likely have to be done through innovation, not through the traditional approach of sending schools additional dollars.

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