The No Child Left Behind Act — the education bill passed by Congress in 2001 and signed by George W. Bush in 2002 — comes up for reauthorization this year. NCLB injected into the federal aid to education program important doses of accountability — yearly testing of kids from grades 3 to 8, consequences for failing schools, disaggregation of data by race and ethnicity — and it seems to have resulted in some modest improvements in test scores.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is optimistic that it will be reauthorized. Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. George Miller have scheduled a bipartisan joint meeting of their committees for March 13 — both played major roles in 2001 shaping the bill, which passed with bipartisan majorities. Yet 11 members of a bipartisan group of 12 Washington education law professionals surveyed in December by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute predicted that the new version will not be passed until 2009.
Perhaps this is because they think that Kennedy and Miller would rather wait until a Democratic president is in office. They have made it plain that they want a bill authorizing considerably more funding. Kennedy has been complaining since 2002 that the administration hasn’t fulfilled its promise to spend the full amounts authorized then. Others do not recall such a promise and note that few programs are funded up to the full authorization amount. And the teachers unions — an important Democratic constituency — would probably like more money and less accountability. The Republicans involved — Spellings and Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Rep. Buck McKeon of California — seem primarily interested in more accountability.
On that, they have received serious intellectual support in recent months. An Aspen Institute panel headed by two former governors, Republican Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Democrat Roy Barnes of Georgia, called for beefed-up accountability measures, more public school choice, aligning state test standards with college and workplace standards, and more assessments in high school grades.
Bill Gates, whose foundation has been concentrating on education, is pushing for more rigor and better results in high schools. The Center for American Progress, headed by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, has teamed with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Frederick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute to urge more in the way of accountability.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and high-tech CEOs have emphasized that America needs better schools if it is to remain competitive. At the same time, there appears to be little support in liberal think tanks for the positions the teachers unions have taken over the years.
Spellings calls for some interesting changes: merit pay for teachers in districts with "challenging" schools, overriding teachers union contracts when they conflict with NCLB sanctions and more assessments of students’ progress in high school. It’s not at all clear that Kennedy and Miller are going to oppose all such changes (though the teachers unions will press them to oppose the second).
Their support of the 2001 legislation represented a sharp shift from the Democrats’ approach to the 1994 reauthorization, which added more money but did little about accountability. Kennedy and Miller, impressed by the success of state accountability programs in the intervening years and acting out of a heartfelt conviction that schools without accountability were poorly serving disadvantaged children, led their party to a sharp change on policy.
But more progress is needed. Something more needs to be done about the 15 percent of high schools that produce 50 percent of high school dropouts. Only about half the blacks and Hispanics who enter high school graduate within four years. Kennedy and Miller seem willing to plunge ahead with elaborate hearings, and my sense, based on observing them over many years, is that they will be not only open, but inclined, to support many tougher accountability measures. They proved that in their work on the bill in 2001.
It’s also my sense that Spellings, Enzi and McKeon are open to more funding. The Bush budget already adds $1.2 billion for Title I aid to disadvantaged schools, $500 million for low-performing schools and $600 million for tuition to alternatives to failing schools.
The fact is that our schools are not as good as they could be. This doesn’t hurt kids from affluent, stable, book-filled households too much — they’re mostly going to do well even if they go to mediocre schools. But it does hurt kids from low-earning, single-parent, bookless households who fall behind in poor schools and too often never reach their potential. It would help them if these Democrats and Republicans could once again reach a deal. Let’s hope the insiders are wrong on this one.