No Child Left Behind: Obama overhaul takes flak from both parties

Education Secretary Arne Duncan took the Obama administration's plans for No Child Left Behind to Capitol Hill Wednesday. Lawmakers were pleased but also had tough questions.

Ryan Kelly/Congressional Quarterly
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testifies about proposals to revise the No Child Left Behind Law before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Wednesday.

National lawmakers quizzed Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Wednesday about the Obama administration’s blueprint for overhauling the No Child Left Behind federal education law.

While many members of the House Education and Labor committee praised the bipartisan process under way to rewrite the law, their comments and questions often reflected traditional concerns of their parties.

For Republicans, that meant a focus on local control for states and school districts, while Democrats homed in on how the law would support the most disadvantaged students and maintain fairness to teachers.

(What five key things could change under the new No Child Left Behind? Click here.)

“The federal government is too involved in the day-to-day operation of our schools, the federal requirements are too prescriptive, and the measures of success are not nuanced enough,” said Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the committee.

What the Republicans want

The tenets that would guide Republicans in crafting the revised law, he said, in addition to local control, include “empowering parents, letting teachers teach, and protecting the taxpayers.”

Another Republican, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, worried that the Obama blueprint would simply create a new set of requirements that would be hard for states and schools to comply with and pay for.

“For eight years we have whipsawed local school districts and states to implement No Child Left Behind.... Will this administration fully fund the mandates it’s going to put on states and schools?” he asked.

Duncan defended the blueprint as having more local flexibility built into it than did the original No Child Left Behind, saying he wanted to shift the federal role in education from compliance monitoring to driving innovation.

But he added that “there’s a couple core principles that every child needs and deserves, and we’re trying to stay true to that,” mentioning examples such as the need for high-quality teachers and a comprehensive curriculum, rather than one narrowed to reading and math – a common complaint about NCLB’s effect.

Overall, the new proposal does turn a lot of control back to districts and states, which generally makes Republicans happy, says Michael Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute who served in the Education Department during George W. Bush’s first term.

The system of labeling and sanctioning schools that don’t make adequate yearly progress on standardized tests would basically disappear, and all but the worst performing schools would now be able to “breathe freely from federal encroachment,” he says.

What the Democrats want

Indeed, concentrating most accountability on the worst schools and being more hands off with the others may raise concerns for people worried about equity in education, says Patrick McGuinn, an assistant professor of political science and education at Drew University in Madison, N.J.

A Democrat, Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California, raised the issue that students who are hungry or homeless require more resources to ensure that they can learn. She asked if more money would be spent on those students than on the children from more comfortable backgrounds.

Others raised questions about meeting the needs of students learning English as a second language and about whether the methods outlined for transforming the worst schools have a track record of success.

“[Duncan] is getting criticized both for being too aggressive on the federal role and not aggressive enough, which tells you he’s kind of in the middle,” Professor McGuinn says.

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