For Bush, 'No Child' a hard act to follow

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is locked in a struggle to preserve his signature education initiative as Republicans and Democrats press for key changes in the law that ushered in an era of high-stakes testing and strict standards.

The No Child Left Behind Act took effect in 2002 after receiving the kind of bipartisan support that has all but evaporated since. It will expire this year unless it is renewed or extended.

With his time in office waning, Bush regularly refers to the education reform act as one of his most notable achievements, and one that he hopes will endure.

But his push this year to renew the law has made little progress. The administration is redoubling its lobbying efforts - including enlisting first lady Laura Bush - against opposition from both ends of the political spectrum.

"If I do say so modestly, it is the jewel in the crown of his domestic achievements," said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was a White House policy adviser when the law was enacted. "Obviously, he is very committed."

Spellings plotted legislative strategy last week with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, the Democrats who chair Congress' education committees, and senior Republican lawmakers.

"If you care about resources, this is the time to act. If you care about competitiveness, and high schools, like Bill Gates does and our governors do, this is the time to act," Spellings said in an interview. "I'm very concerned that if we don't act this year, having this sort of thing in play in the middle of a presidential campaign becomes much more difficult."

The debate carries important consequences for schools in Maryland and elsewhere.

Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick praises the accountability goals contained in the law.

With more families moving from state to state, the public is entitled to a "level of transparency" so they can judge how schools are performing, she said.

But teachers, principals and parents in Baltimore and throughout the state criticize what they say is a lack of flexibility imposed by the measure. The day after Worcester County's Michelle Hammond was honored at the White House as Maryland's teacher of the year in April, she joined a news conference to decry the absence of teacher involvement in developing policy options.

No Child Left Behind has imposed stricter qualifications on teachers and required that schools face tough sanctions, such as being taken over by states or private companies, if they fail to make yearly progress. The law aims to make every student - regardless of race, learning ability or native language - proficient in reading and math by 2014.

The act has been studied incessantly over the past five years, with no shortage of ideas for changes.

Some educators want subjects such as science, history and geography added to the testing regimen, so their disciplines get more attention.

Others want to make sure that schools are not automatically labeled as failing if they miss the mark because of a small number of non-native English speakers or special needs students.

State officials say they hope they'll get more money to pay for administering the law. A recent analysis by the independent Center on Education Policy found that eight of 10 school districts nationwide have been forced to spend more money on bureaucratic requirements not paid for by the federal government.

The White House is open to making changes, and officials say they want to provide more flexibility and a stronger focus on high schools. The administration has not proposed specific refinements - leaving that to Congress - and Bush warned in a speech this year that "we will not allow this good piece of legislation to be weakened."

But the president has his work cut out for him. Conservatives say the law is an unneeded federal encroachment into an arena that has traditionally been a state and local domain.

"My colleagues are hearing nothing positive about No Child Left Behind in their districts," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican.

His plan to let states opt out of the law has garnered support from more than 60 Republican congressmen - some of whom voted for it five years ago.

"It may be OK in theory, but to get it mandated in Washington just is not working," Hoekstra said.

Likewise, newly elected congressional Democrats have brought to Washington concerns about an over-reliance on testing that is stripping creativity from the classroom as schools focus on test preparation to the exclusion of other subjects and activities.

"Most of us saw No Child Left Behind as incredibly cumbersome and punitive," said Rep. Tim Walz, who taught high school geography before coming to Washington, and whose wife is in charge of compliance with the federal requirements in their Minnesota school district.

Still, few of those involved with the issue predict wholesale changes. Kennedy and Miller, the congressional Democrats who were instrumental in getting the law passed in 2001, are now in leadership positions and, like Bush, view the education initiative as part of their legacy.

With education an important topic with voters and several studies showing that increased testing and accountability has raised student performance, there could be a heavy political price to pay for those who vote to undo the main principles of the law - such as splitting out test scores for minority, special education and non-native English-speaking students in an effort to address performance gaps, analysts say.

"They are not going to change the core of the act," said Tom Loveless, head of education policy at the Brookings Institution. Overall, that's "a good thing," he said.

Frederick M. Hess, an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said lawmakers and the administration do not appear ready to address flaws in the initiative.

By setting an all-but-impossible goal of having all children proficient in math and reading by 2014, the legislation encourages states to set low standards and fudge numbers, he said, while doing little to make sure that children are learning.

"To my mind, it makes sense to hold a school - whether it is in Baltimore or Boston - accountable not for having children where we wish they would be in a perfect world, but for whether that school, or that teacher, is ensuring that those students are making a year's worth of progress in a year's time," he said.

Even some of the law's staunchest supporters, such as Grasmick, acknowledge that changes are needed. She says she wants not only more money, but emphasis on principals as a critical component of good schools.

And the scoring system for schools needs to be improved, she said, to recognize schools that are making strides but do not meet the thresholds set out in the law.

Democrats will continue to push for more money to address concerns that the measure imposed federal requirements but did not provide enough resources to pay for them.

The Bush administration has asked for $2.53 billion in additional education funding next year.

Democratic lawmakers will likely try to push that figure higher. Many Democrats say Bush reneged on a pledge to persuade a Republican-controlled Congress to provide more funding for education. While the federal share of education money rose early in the Bush administration, it has declined since, and the amount of federal money provided under the act each year has fallen short of the maximum authorized under the law.

For its part, the White House is enlisting Laura Bush, a former school librarian, who has invited groups of lawmakers for coffee at the White House to discuss the merits of legislation.

"I've never known her to get involved in legislative initiatives," said Hoekstra. "Maybe they recognize they are in a whole lot more trouble than what they anticipated."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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