No Child Left Behind School Law Opens Partisan Divide

No Child Left Behind, the 11-year-old law governing U.S. schools, was once hailed as a bipartisan triumph uniting Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy on improving education.

Now, once again, bitter party divisions are complicating efforts to change the law, criticized by parents, teachers and many politicians for an excessive focus on the standardized testing of students. Efforts to reauthorize No Child Left Behind have been bogged down since 2007.

This week, Senate Democrats proposed a bill to ease the law’s provisions while preserving testing requirements designed to hold schools accountable for all students’ achievement. House Republicans countered yesterday with a plan to curtail U.S. involvement. It’s unlikely the parties will come to an agreement anytime soon, said Maria Ferguson, executive director of Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan research group.

“It’s taken a heck of a long time, and that speaks to something,” Ferguson said of the six years of attempts to overhaul the law. “It demonstrates the complicated relationship this country has with the federal government role in education.”

Officially called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law requires schools to show that all students are proficient on state standardized reading and math tests by 2014. Schools also must demonstrate yearly progress toward that goal or risk losing federal money. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said the law’s rigid approach has led to the narrowing of the U.S. curriculum and dumbing down of schools.

‘Failed Tenets’

Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, introduced a bill this week that he said would “replace the failed tenets of No Child Left Behind” while building on “state-led reforms.”

In many respects, the Harkin bill resembles the approach that President Barack Obama has taken to changing the law. Frustrated with congressional inaction, Obama has granted waivers to 37 states and the District of Columbia, excusing them from meeting No Child Left Behind’s proficiency deadlines if they agree to the principles of his education agenda, such as pledging to turn around the lowest-performing schools.

Standardized Tests

Like the Obama waivers, the bill offered by Harkin and other Senate Democrats leaves in place the No Child Left Behind standardized-testing program, including the reporting of the results of subgroups, such as minorities, children with disabilities and those who speak English as a second language. The bill calls on states to establish goals for those students’ achievement. Civil-rights groups had been pushing to preserve that kind of accountability in the law.

The Harkin bill also said schools must use students’ standardized-test scores to improve teaching, while it is silent on whether they should be incorporated into the evaluation of teachers -- a controversial approach, especially among teachers. The Obama administration supports their use in teacher evaluations.

By contrast, House Republicans led by U.S. Representative John Kline of Minnesota, who chairs the Education and Workforce Committee, proposed eliminating federal mandates for turning around troubled schools and letting states determine their own accountability systems. It would still require testing and the posting of annual report cards for parents.

Republican Bill

Their bill eliminates more than 70 elementary and high school programs. It would create new grants to provide money to states and school districts for their own initiatives to improve achievement. It would also expand funding for the expansion of charter schools, privately run public schools. States would be required to make student achievement a significant part of teacher evaluations.

The proposed legislation would also limit the authority of the Education Secretary, specifically prohibiting him from imposing conditions on states and school districts in exchange for waivers to federal law -- as Duncan did for the No Child Left Behind waivers.

“House Republicans are determined to put an end to the Obama administration’s overreach in our nation’s classrooms and empower communities to fix our broken education system,” they said in materials introducing the bill.

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