President Obama campaigned on bringing common-sense changes to the federal role in K-12 education. But even with a Democratic-controlled Congress, efforts toward a long-overdue revision of No Child Left Behind made little headway.
NCLB's goals are widely praised: improve education and close the gaps in opportunity and achievement faced by low-income and minority students.
But the law's methods have proven unpopular. Nine years after complex testing and accountability systems became the new normal in American schools, the question looms: Can the Obama administration rally a bipartisan group of lawmakers to agree on key changes to the law before election cycle gridlock threatens to set in?
School administrators hope so. They call the current goal – 100 percent of students reaching math and reading targets by 2014 – unrealistic. They hope a new law would roll back the strict requirements and timelines that characterize NCLB. And state and local school leaders need more choices about how best to improve achievement, say groups such as the National School Boards Association.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says revising the law is his top priority. He hopes his months of bipartisan meetings are about to pay off. He has met regularly with members of Congress, particularly since last March, when the administration released its blueprint for a new version of the law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
The blueprint calls upon states to agree to higher standards to ensure that high school graduates are ready for college or careers. At the same time, it would roll back the degree to which schools face mandates based on student test scores. Required interventions would affect only the bottom 5 percent of schools.
"The trade-off we want is this much higher bar, but in exchange for that higher bar, give folks a lot more flexibility to hit it at the local level, and frankly, in many ways, get the federal government off their backs," Secretary Duncan said in a recent Monitor interview.
States that competed for Race to the Top stimulus dollars are testing many of the blueprint's ideas, such as revising teacher-evaluation systems to include more consideration of students' academic growth, and taking dramatic actions to turn around the worst schools, including firing principals and teachers, an approach that has generated heated pushback from teachers' unions.
Education experts and Washington insiders are split on the likelihood that a revised ESEA will go through in 2011.
Optimists say education can offer common ground to otherwise polarized parties.
"Key parts of Obama's education agenda and [his] ESEA blueprint ... contain elements that are really embraced by moderate and even some conservative Republicans," says Patrick McGuinn, a political science professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "Education is one of the leading issues [on which] a deal could be made" between Congress and the White House, he says.
Among the issues ripe for bipartisan agreement: more support for charter schools and a new emphasis on measuring teacher effectiveness.
Education observers will closely watch how strongly Mr. Obama pushes for the new law during his Jan. 25 State of the Union address. That week in the Senate, moderate Democrats led by Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Michael Bennet of Colorado are planning to introduce bills reflecting various components of the blueprint, an Education Department spokeswoman says.
If Congress does update the law before its August recess, "it's a potential win that everyone can come home with and campaign on," said Phillip Lovell, vice president of federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, during a recent webinar. The alliance pushes for higher standards and achievement in high schools.
But not everyone is confident that there will be a bipartisan meeting of the minds – or even agreement within each party – over how the law should achieve its goals.
"Choice, accountability – people are for those things, [but] there's a lot of disagreement underneath," says Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit group working to improve education for low-income students.
Expect heated debate over how to improve teacher quality, for instance. And some Democrats oppose the push to expand charter schools.
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.