The Bush administration's move Monday to relax national teacher-quality requirements marks an election-year repositioning - some say a tactical retreat - for what is arguably the president's signature domestic reform.
The No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush enacted with bipartisan congressional support in 2002, faces mounting opposition from states, school districts, and from Bush's own party. More than a dozen states are challenging the law, which mandates annual testing of students and higher standards for teachers. Schools that do not measure up to new standards face cuts in federal funding.
Mr. Bush isn't abandoning the initiative to boost accountability for US schools. But facing local outcries and the prospect of a tight reelection campaign, the administration is putting a new emphasis on "flexibility" in its approach to the controversial law. One sign of the issue's urgency: Republican congressional candidates are taking heat on the issue nationwide.
"We see Republicans running away from the Bush administration on No Child Left Behind, especially the obligations the law puts on states and on [lack of] funding," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington. "No Republican candidates say a simple 'yes' to the question: Do you support No Child Left Behind."
Last week, the National Conference of State Legislators reported that NCLB requirements will cost the states $9.6 billion in FY 2004, and that federal funding doesn't cover this new "unfunded mandate."
No aspect of the new law has attracted harsher criticism than the mandate that teachers demonstrate competence in core academic subjects. Protests have been especially strong in the rural heartland, where small schools are struggling with the call to prove that science and math teachers are qualified to teach in each of their fields. In addition, all schools are required to have "highly qualified" teachers in core academic subjects by the 2005-2006 school year.
Education Secretary Rod Paige Monday announced three "common sense solutions" to ease those requirements for science teachers and teachers in rural areas, which account for about a third of US schools. The changes include:
• As long as teachers in eligible districts are highly qualified in at least one subject, they will have three more years to become highly qualified in the additional subjects they teach.
• Newly hired teachers would have until their third year to demonstrate qualification.
• States would be able to use their own certification standards to determine competence for teachers who cover more than one field.
It's a sharp step back from the policy of "no waivers" that Education Department officials announced in the early days of the law. Last month, the department also eased up on requirements for testing special-ed and limited-English proficiency students. The department is also said to be planning to soften rules governing required participation rates on standardized tests.
The National Education Association, which has opposed the law, welcomed these changes as evidence that "the debate is no longer on whether NCLB and its implementation is flawed and needs to be fixed, but on what needs to be fixed."
But education activists for poor students say they fear that relaxing deadlines for teacher qualification could gut the intent of the new law.
"You can talk about increased flexibility, but the concern is that this not undermine the focus on all kids deserving highly qualified teachers," says Ross Wiener, policy director of the Education Trust, which advocates for poor children.