As the 2004 campaign begins in earnest, protests over the No Child Left Behind law may push President Bush's signature domestic legislation from triumph to liability. To bolster support for NCLB, the White House deployed Laura Bush to the National School Boards Association conference last week. In addition, David Dunn, a key domestic-policy adviser in the Bush White House, will retain his title but now works at the federal Education Department.
The moves have caused a flurry of speculation that the president is dissatisfied with the department's handling of NCLB.
The 2-year-old law appears embattled on many fronts, with 21 states now asking for waivers, changes, or additional federal money. School districts have stepped up criticism of NCLB, saying that while its goals are laudable, flaws in the regulations will cause a large percentage of US schools to be incorrectly labeled as "failing."
"NCLB is seen as a hardball statute," says Joseph Cronin, dean of the School of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. "And it has little time bombs that go off each year."
Education Secretary Rod Paige has said that all the complaints prove the law is working. But the criticism is increasingly bipartisan and can't be so easily dismissed, says Mr. Cronin.
Concerns about NCLB are also showing up in voter polls. Pollsters say many parents still don't know much about the law, but the more they understand, the less they like it. A survey of voters in a recent PEN/Education Week poll showed that 36 percent favor the law, 28 percent oppose it (up from 8 percent who opposed it in 2003), and of those opposing it, 18 percent say they strongly oppose it.
The timing of this erosion of voter support for the law is unfortunate for the Bush campaign. And education sources say that the president's advisers - especially Bush political guru Karl Rove - know it.
"The White House is nervous about the election-year implications of NCLB," says Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "It's unclear whether it's a political plus or minus. They want to keep it from being a minus."
Cronin says that Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) is waiting in the wings with a package of revisions to NCLB. His colleague, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, is expected to campaign this fall including many of these proposed revisions in his platform.
The Education Department, in response to concerns about the law, last month modified four of its requirements. It changed the method for calculating students' participation rates in tests, and offered some flexibility in testing students with limited English skills, as well as those with severe learning disabilities. The department also eased the definition of "highly qualified teacher" to allow instructors in multiple fields to continue teaching.
But David Shreve of the National Council of State Legislatures calls such changes "gestures." Cronin predicts the White House won't make more than modest concessions, because it does not want to look as if it's backing down.
Another possible source of concern to the White House are the adequate yearly progress (AYP) numbers for schools, which will be released in August and September. Experts say as many as one-half to three-quarters of the nation's schools may then be labeled as failing.
"Parents can understand a few schools failing," Mr. Shreve says, "but they won't understand how 50 percent can be failing."
Sending Mr. Dunn to the Education Department, speculate some, is a White House effort to bolster support for the law. Dunn is expected to create a conciliatory atmosphere, in contrast to Secretary Paige's more rigid approach.
"Paige's credibility has been eroded," says Cronin. "His remark about the NEA [the teachers' union] being a terrorist organization and the questions surrounding the state of Houston's schools while he was there have created a lot of heat."
Cronin adds that the White House is trying to keep Paige "on message. Now, his speeches are reviewed even before they go to the White House [for approval]."
"Paige's remarks drew a line in the sand that discouraged people from wanting to work with the department," says Michael Resnick of the National School Boards Association.
Dunn arrived at the Ed Dept early last month with little fanfare. Many in the education community still don't know exactly who he is, but some say they welcome any change in the embattled atmosphere.
Dunn, like many in Bush's inner circle, comes from Texas and worked for the Texas Association of School Boards. He's seen as having more credibility than Paige because of his experience at the legislative level.
For some, it appears to be a step in the right direction. "We're gratified that the Ed Department is in a more listening mode," says Mr. Resnick.
But that doesn't mean the Bush team has resolved its difficulties on this issue, he adds. There's still a real danger "that people will begin to resent the [NCLB] program," he says.
The trouble may be, say some, a focus on the punitive aspects of the law.
"The emphasis has gotten severely off kilter," says Gary Ratner of Citizens for Effective Schools. "It's not about the kids. Instead, the focus is on how we can increase children's test scores to meet the AYP. States want to do everything they can to avoid embarrassment, sanctions, and [federal] intervention."