No Child Left Behind: Why Congress will struggle to hit Obama's deadline

President Obama wants No Child Left Behind revised by the fall. The Senate is working toward a bipartisan compromise, but House Republicans want to shrink the federal role in education.

President Obama greets students during at the auditorium of Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., Monday. In an address at the school, he challenged Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind by the fall.

President Obama’s call to Congress to significantly revise the nation’s top education law, No Child Left Behind, by the first day of the new school year faces tough headwinds on Capitol Hill, despite broad agreement on needed fixes.

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that NCLB's achievement standards are too rigid. The Department of Education estimates that, according to those standards, more than 80 percent of the national K-12 schools may be labeled as failing this year – up from 37 percent last year.

But Mr. Obama's plans to reform NCLB come to a Congress preoccupied by budget matters and to House Republicans eager to reduce federal influence in education. With the current year's budget still living week to week on stopgap funding measures – followed by battles over the fiscal year 2012 budget and a highly controversial measure to raise the national debt ceiling – an education deal on the president’s timetable looks unlikely.

The Obama administration's proposed fixes include: improving standards and assessments, giving high-performing schools more flexibility and the lowest-performing schools more help, and recruiting better teachers and rewarding them for how effectively they improve student performance.

Senate vs. House

The Senate has been working toward a bipartisan agreement on education reform for more than a year and hopes to complete work on the reauthorization of NCLB this spring. But the House is just getting started – and the mantra of the new majority House Republicans is: We're broke, so we can't afford it. They aim to scale back education spending and the federal role in local schools.

“Although we have our different approaches, everyone agrees current law is broken and in need of repair,” said US House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline (R) of Minnesota and subcommittee chair Duncan Hunter (R) of California in a statement on Monday. “The status quo is failing both students and tax payers; it is time we reconsidered the role of the federal government in our schools."

On Monday, Obama rebuked this suggestion. “Let me make it plain: We cannot cut education,” he said.

A telling sticking point is whether to renew funding for President Obama’s signature Race to the Top grants. In an unprecedented move, the Democrat-controlled Congress gave the Education Secretary Arne Duncan a $4 billion fund to use at his discretion to leverage education reform. The Obama administration calls Race to the Top the most effective program in the department’s history and is proposing $1.4 billion to fund the program for the balance of the fiscal year.

But the Republican-controlled House last month voted to zero out funding for the program. “The federal role in education is a history of underperformance, hype, and false promises,” said Rep. Peter Roscam (R) of Illinois, the chief deputy whip, at a press briefing on Feb. 28.

Federal standards: a brief history

The move to involve the federal government in standards-based reform has been a priority of the last four presidents. Despite opposition from GOP conservatives, President George H. W. Bush launched the concept with the support of top business groups. President Clinton, who campaigned to become “the education president,” won legislation that used federal aid to leverage more accountability for results.

With the support of then-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, President George W. Bush passed NCLB, which gave Washington a heightened role in the nation’s classrooms. It set up rules to measure whether schools were demonstrating “adequate yearly progress” in reading and math, including a goal that all children should reach proficiency in these fields by 2014.

Republican conservatives went along during the NCLB debates. But with the federal deficit at $1.6 trillion, House conservatives – especially many in the 87-member GOP freshmen class – are now pushing back.

“There’s a strong element in the Republican caucus that wants to do away with a federal role in education,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. “The prospects of getting reauthorization are improving because of the president and Senate leadership, but the main obstacle will be the tea party in the House.”

Sharp cuts in federal education funding could threaten implementation of several reforms, such as common core standards in English and math already adopted by 43 states. Another possible casualty would be systems to measure the effectiveness of teachers – a key to the reform goal of rewarding teachers according to their ability to raise student achievement.

Says Mr. Jennings: “The reforms may be stillborn because there won’t be the money to put them in place.

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