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Future of No Child Left Behind law is uncertain

Ohanian Comment: I'd like to know why the Senators sitting on the Education Committee and criticizing the NCLB Act now that they're running for president and testing the winds, did not do something about NCLB before getting out on the campaign trail. Why did they vote for it? Why have they ignored the passionate complaints of teachers and parents telling them of the harm done to children? Why?

Letting NCLB sit there until Bush is gone is unconscionable. They should kill it now. Today.

by Scott Stephens

Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes sounded pretty sure of himself last April when he predicted that Congress would renew the No Child Left Behind law by the end of 2007.

"I've talked to leaders on both sides of the aisle, and they want to do something this year," Barnes, a Democrat who co-chaired the Commission on No Child Left Behind, assured a few reporters one afternoon at Johnny's Half Shell, a Capitol Hill watering hole.

Barnes wasn't alone with that prediction last spring. But by late summer, the bipartisan collaboration that allowed the sweeping education reform law to sail through Congress in 2001 had disappeared like the cherry blossoms that colored the landscape that April afternoon.

Now, six years after the landmark bill became law, there is broad consensus that No Child Left Behind -- which requires public schools to bring every child to reading and math proficiency by 2014 -- will itself be left behind in 2008.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has vowed to introduce a bill to reauthorize the law early this year.

The Massachusetts Democrat promises the legislation will not be a rubber stamp of the current law, but will instead address the growing list of No Child concerns.

But there is growing doubt that Democrats can produce a bill that will both satisfy their constituents and dodge a veto by President Bush.

In fact, most pundits agree that renewal of the law - widely considered the president's signature domestic policy - will go nowhere until the White House has a new occupant.

"I think the chances for reauthorization in 2008 are slim and none," said Mike Petrilli, a former Bush administration education official now with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "The bases of both parties hate the law."

What happened? For starters, the law is closely identified with Bush, whose approval ratings plummeted last year.

In late August, a draft bill floated by Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who co-sponsored the original bill, was savaged by both the left and the right.

Meanwhile, three Democratic senators running for president - Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd - also served on the Education Committee and roundly criticized the law on the campaign trail.

To make matters worse, teachers unions - which have huge influence on those Democratic candidates - also stepped up criticism of the law. The teachers unions said No Child is too test-driven and labels schools as failing but does little to help them improve.

"School people have lived with the law for six years - they know the defects in it," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center for Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for public education. "Unlike most laws, this law has not been amended for six years. The lid has been held tight, and that's caused resentment."

That resentment even spilled into court. Last week, a federal appeals court revived a 2005 lawsuit filed by school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont, as well as by the National Education Association.

The lawsuit complained that No Child Left Behind required them to pay for testing and other programs without providing sufficient federal money. The 2-1 ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said the suit had merit.

But the Bush administration is fighting back. At the National Press Club Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the law - whatever its faults - has at least changed the debate from whether all children can learn to how they can succeed.

"Agree or disagree with this law, without [it] we wouldn't even be talking about how to get every student on grade level," she said.

Spellings joined Bush in Chicago last week to celebrate the law's six-year anniversary. Speaking at Horace Greeley Elementary School, the president expressed hope that the bill can be reauthorized this year.

If not, Bush said he will instruct Spellings to make administrative reforms to the law. He also promised to veto any bill that weakens the accountability system.

"We want to make sure that a high school degree means something," Bush said. "We don't want people getting out of high school and it's not meaning something."

But for activists like Janice Resseger, that misses the point.

Resseger, of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, made her own visit to a Chicago school last year that she says exemplifies what education should be about.

Harold Washington Elementary School, a three-story building built in 1915, includes a museum of Chicago's black history and the photographs of every child's family. The auditorium, painted shocking pink, includes large paintings of black performing artists. There's a jukebox in the principal's office, and the Cadillac of the former mayor for whom the school is named is on the grounds.

All of the children who attend the neighborhood school are poor, and all are black or Latino. The mobility rate - the rate children transfer in or out of a school - is 30 percent. Still, the children at Harold Washington are mastering reading, math and other skills.

"The school has high test scores - it doesn't demand high test scores," Resseger said. "The principal has created an atmosphere of love and fun and support. People want to be there."

— Scott Stephens
Cleveland Plain Dealer



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