NCLB Debate Heats Up in Congress

K-12 Testing


FairTest Examiner - July 2007

The U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor is expected to vote in July on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), now named No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But growing criticism of the law from education, civil rights, religious and civic organizations, presidential candidates and members of Congress is intensifying pressure for substantive changes and may make it difficult for reauthorization to pass Congress this session. The Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB, calling for a major overhaul, has now been signed by 137 national organizations representing more than 50 million people. On the other side, NCLB defenders include President Bush, major business groups, and their allies such as Education Trust and the Aspen Commission on NCLB.


All these organizations are lobbying Congress intensely. Now is the time for assessment reformers to act by calling or faxing the House education committee. (For more information, see the FairTest Action Alert).

The Senate education committee is not likely to act until fall.


In response to the pressure, House Committee Chair George Miller sent a memo to all new members of Congress listing points the Committee would address during reauthorization. (First-term Representatives have been particularly critical of the law.) While the points are important, Miller gave little indication of the nature or extent of any revisions he would support (see FairTest letter to the Education Committee in response).



To some extent, a tension exists among critics between the desire for fundamental changes and the need for quick relief from the law's harmful mandates. Some observers and Congressional staff fear that passing a law this year will preclude making necessary major changes. Indeed, some say the effort to reauthorize this year is a maneuver to prevent more substantial changes that could occur if a vote were delayed until 2009.


Congressional Republicans, like Democrats, are divided. Some support NCLB largely as it is, but more than 50 House Republicans have endorsed the "A-Plus" bill that would allow states to use federal education funds for school programs of their own choice. A-Plus is not expected to go forward, but its proponents generally have not advanced changes to NCLB itself beyond supporting expanded tutoring and school transfer options.

President Bush and U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings continue to claim NCLB is "working" and want to minimize changes to the law. Sens. Richard Burr and Judd Gregg introduced the president's bill on July 12. It would expand testing to include grades 10-12 inclusive, and there is some tightening of the options available to in the final, "restructuring" phase of sanctions. Most other changes relevant to testing and accountability are not major. Many observers and staff say the president's lame duck status makes him irrelevant to the Congressional discussions.

Presidential Candidates Weigh In


Democratic presidential candidates, including those who voted for NCLB in 2001, have strengthened their criticism of the law. Each has denounced the reduction of schooling to test preparation and the resulting narrowing of the curriculum and stifling of higher order thinking and creativity. Senators Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama are on the Senate education committee, while Dennis Kucinich is on the House education committee. Sen. Joseph Biden, former Sen. John Edwards and former Gov. Bill Richardson joined them at the National Education Association annual Representative Assembly in criticizing NCLB. Among Republican candidates, only Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke to the NEA. (See for candidate speeches.) Generally, the leading GOP candidates have been supportive or mildly critical of the law. Reform advocates hope that the presidential candidates who are in Congress back up their language by working for major changes in the law as it progresses through committee.


o The Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA) has detailed proposals for overhauling NCLB. FEA also sent a letter to all members of Congress asking them to inform the education committee of needed changes in the law. FEA materials and the Joint Statement on NCLB are here.

o For the views of education and business groups, see "NCLB Legislative Battles Begin" and "Bumper Crop of Proposals".




o The Burr-Gregg bill can be found at