NCLB: Strangling our Schools
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is strangling our schools. On that fact, both Democrats and Republicans agree. Is that enough to ensure that Congress and the President will agree on terms to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known as NCLB in this, the 112th Congress? Based upon meetings and conversations I had last week in Washington, I’m not so sure. Here’s what I know.
The Senate plans to produce a marked-up version of ESEA by April, and that’s possible. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) remains chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and has embraced many of the President’s proposals included in his document, “ESEA Reauthorization; A Blueprint for Reform,” issued last year. The blueprint aims to correct problems with NCLB that created incentives for states to lower standards, overlooked student growth and progress in favor of absolute scores, and took a one-size-fits-all approach to interventions for struggling schools.
The House of Representatives however is a different matter. First, because Republicans are in the majority, the Committee on Education and Labor has a new chairman, John Kline (R-MN). We met with Rep. Kline and he was very candid with us.
While he reassured us that the work accomplished during the last session would not be lost, he advised us not to expect much legislative activity quickly, and he cited two reasons. First, the House has 62 new members, almost all Republicans. They need time to acclimate to Washington and Rep. Kline needs time to understand their issues. Second, the House will reassert its oversight responsibilities. Oversight becomes secondary when the administration and Congress are of the same political party, regardless of whether it’s Republican or Democrat. Yet it becomes more important when the president represents one party and the House or Senate is ruled by the other.
Continuing, Rep. Kline said NCLB is deeply flawed. He believes it resulted in a serious overreach by the federal government in education. Thus, legislative proposals from the House will rollback many current components of NCLB, probably more than the President would prefer.
Further complicating reauthorization, the new Speaker the House John Boehner dislikes long and complicated bills like NCLB (it’s over 1,100 pages). He will insist the current version be divided into pieces, possibly aligned with the titles, i.e., Title I, Title II, etc. This will raise challenges for the House and Senate to create compromise legislation.
Expect conflict between the administration and both House and Senate over: the four turnaround models incorporated in the School Improvement Grant initiative, the proposal to provide some Title I funding through competitive grants versus a formula approach, and questions about Race to the Top (RttT). The president will highlight RttT in his State of the Union address, but don’t expect Congress to be as enamored with the program as he is.
What I describe does not present insurmountable roadblocks to repairing the damage done by NCLB. There is bipartisan agreement that it is deeply flawed and needs repair. We’ll see if that’s enough to cause the President and leaders in both houses of Congress to work together. If not, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan does hold a trump card, as he can use his power to modify regulations created by NCLB.