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In the No Child Left Behind Shuffle You Can't Tell the Players with a Program

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On the surface, the No Child Left Behind law reflected an orgy of bi-partisanship, passing Congress 487-48. In January, 2002, President Bush eschewed the usual Rose Garden fanfare and flew to Hamilton High School, Hamilton, Ohio where he signed the bill flanked by George Miller (D-Ca.), Teddie Kennedy (D-Ma.), Judd Gregg (R-Vt.), and John Boehner (R-Oh.) (Hamilton is in Boehner's district; in addition, Boehner had tried on six separate occasions to get vouchers back into the bill). At this ceremony, less than three months after 9/11, the applause Bush received was described as "deafening." Later in the day, Bush went with Kennedy and Gregg to related celebrations in Massachusetts and Vermont.

Fissures in the unanimity façade soon appeared. The bill was not two weeks old when Democrats attacked it as underfunded. "It's really a 'left no money behind for education budget'" groused Miller. Kennedy said Bush had betrayed him.

Now, with the law up for reauthorization, the cracks that were there all along have widened as various posses ride off in all directions, including some surprising ones. Miller, who, I am told, is a real hardass on school accountability, wants to reauthorize the bill with little or no change. Bush and Ed. Secretary Spellings have forcefully argued for reauthorization although it is not clear how strong their voices will be when push comes to shove.

Other players include the Chamber of Commerce and the Center for American Progress whose unholy alliance was discussed in my blog "The Center for American Progress: Progressively Regressive?" At the Center, education is honchoed by Cindy Brown, a steering committee member on the Chapter 1 Commission that reported out in 1992. That report essentially described NCLB without all the punitive specifics. But it was all there--adequate yearly progress, results-based accountability, choice, closing or restructuring low-performing schools, etc. It just sat there waiting for Bush adviser Sandy Kress and Spellings with the help of Education Trust head, Kati Haycock, to put the nasty touches on it (In a recent interview with Education Next, Kress thanked the Trust for being such a courageous ally). Haycock was also on the steering committee of the Chapter 1 Commission. While 9 of the 28 members filed minority dissents, Haycock and Brown were not among them.

On a path that might be either tangential, parallel or orthogonal to NCLB, is a bill by Chris Dodd and Vernon Ehlers that would establish national standards in reading, math and science and then require the National Assessment Governing Board, a gang that has never shot straight on standards in the past, to develop tests to measure the standards. These tests would replace the state-developed tests now in use. Everything would be "voluntary," of course.

On February 15, 2007, ten Democratic Senators, led by Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, wrote to Kennedy and other members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee that while they support school accountability, "We have concluded that the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind in their current form are unsustainable and must be overhauled significantly during the reauthorization period beginning this year." They offered a series of changes to make the law more "sensible."

The most surprising development--certainly to Bush--is the revolt by 57 members of the House and Senate. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), a longtime opponent introduced a bill that would let states opt out of many of the testing provisions, something that on the surface would appear to render the Dodd-Ehlers bill moot. "So many people are frustrated with the shackles of NCLB," said Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C). House Minority Whip, Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who voted for the law first time around now opposes it because, he said, it shifted "control of public schools to the federal government more dramatically than he ever imagined."

No doubt with a twinkle in his eye, the Washington Post's Amit Paley wrote "In an unusual show of bipartisan cooperation, Democrats and the White House attacked the GOP critics' legislation." Paley quoted Miller, "Rather than work with us in a constructive way to improve this law, this group of Republican lawmakers is trying to dismantle it." California scores at or near the bottom on NAEP tests. Does Miller truly believe NCLB will do something about that?

Fordham Foundation's Mike Petrilli, at the Department of Education when the law was first enacted said "Republicans voted for NCLB holding their noses. But now with the president so politically weak, conservatives can vote their conscience." (How Bush must envy Putin these days; in their race to see who will be the 21st century's tsar, it's no contest).

Hoekstra's bill sent Washington Post editors howling: "The proposal would let the states choose whether to meet federal testing mandates--and, incredibly, allow them to tap into millions of dollars of federal education money without ever having to show any results" (hey, just like the Supplemental Educational Services providers do now). That the New York Times didn't emit a similar squeal can only mean that Brent Staples is on vacation.

Fasten your seat belts.

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