Battles Roil NCLB Reauthorization

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner - October 2007

The House and Senate Education Committees plan to discuss and possibly vote on the reauthorization of "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB), the current version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), in late October. Thus far, changes proposed by committee leaders do not amount to the major overhaul of the law called for in the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB, now signed by 140 national organizations. To prevent passage of a slightly less destructive but still inadequate law, constituents need to turn up the volume on their criticism.

Whether legislation can move is in doubt, however, due to strong differences between leading Republicans and many Democrats. The few positive steps taken by the House Education Committee in its August discussion draft are under sharp attack from the Bush administration, House Republicans, big business, many major newspapers, and pro-NCLB groups such as the Education Trust. These include limited use of multiple indicators, a decent pilot program for local and performance assessments, and modest changes to slow the inevitable movement of schools toward failure.

Many national organizations are calling for further changes regarding the law's "adequate yearly progress" provisions, annual testing, sanctions, professional development, and school improvement. Most of these groups are part of the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA), chaired by FairTest. Some say Congress should slow down the process in order to get a new law right, which could mean waiting until after the 2008 elections. Teachers unions also oppose a proposal mandating that any state receiving funds for a pilot program on pay incentives for teachers include student test score gains as one criterion for awarding the pay.

Some state and local groups have declared outright opposition to NCLB reauthorization. The California Teachers Association, for example, targeted House Education Committee Chair George Miller and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both from California. They demand the leaders block passage of anything like the House draft. The California legislature also passed a resolution opposing the current law.

On the other side of the spectrum, President Bush has threatened a veto if Congress approves more than minimal changes. House Republicans have divided into two camps: those who want to eliminate the law but are not willing to support improvements; and those who want it to remain largely unchanged, including Ranking Education Committee Member Harold "Buck" McKeon.

Many House Democrats are not happy with the lack of significant changes in the Education Committee discussion draft. Some ran for election on a platform of overhauling the law. If such changes are not forthcoming, their constituents are likely to pressure them to oppose their party leadership. If it seems a significant number of Democrats will defect, House leaders may face the problem of winning over enough Republicans to build a working majority. That would make the legislation a "bi-partisan" effort, though with strong opposition from both parties that could derail it.

The Senate cannot pass a bill without Republican votes because a 60% supermajority is needed to end a filibuster. Some Democrats, such as Joe Lieberman and Mary Landrieu, want to intensify the worst aspects of NCLB. On the other hand, some Republicans, such as Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, opposed NCLB from the start and likely will remain opposed. While the Senate has not released a draft, the consensus among observers seems to be it will make fewer improvements to the current law than did the House.

Three Democratic candidates for President, Senators Hilary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Barack Obama serve on the Education Committee. All have called for significant changes to the law, though they differ on specifics. So have other candidates, including John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich. Some analysts have wondered why Sen. Kennedy would push a bill that his party's candidates should oppose, based on their rhetoric, or whether they can get him to defer action until after the election. Because using test-based accountability to control schools divides both parties, some think just having the issue go away - even by passing a bad law -- is the best political solution.
Most pundits have long thought that a bill would not pass until after the 2008 elections. Leadership may succeed in speeding up the timetable, but finding a route past the many differences will require, as one observer termed it, "threading a needle."