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NCLB Outrages

The Next Four Years

Ohanian Comment: Here is what you get as "views representing the political and ideological spectrum" when you refuse to acknowledge that NCLB is a corporate agenda. For the corporate ties of the individuals participating in this discussion, see Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? (Heinemann) by Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian. Inform yourself (and support this website): Buy the book.

For starters, among those serving on the board of directors of the Institute for Educational Leadership is Daniel Domenech, Senior Vice President for National Urban Markets, The McGraw-Hill Companies

In a virtual roundtable, a group of experts talk about what's in store for education for the next four years.

Michael Usdan has followed education policy over four-plus decades as a teacher, school board member, state commissioner of higher education, and president of a think tank. But four years ago, he admits, he didnít foresee the educational firestorm that became No Child Left Behind.

ďI donít think a Democratic administration would have ever been able to enact such legislation because there would have been an enormous backlash,Ē says Usdan, now a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Educational Leadership. ďBut the federal politics of education were inverted almost immediately overnight.Ē

President Bushís education centerpiece, NCLB was hailed as a bipartisan benchmark when it was signed into law three years ago. The legislation has resulted in the greatest level of federal involvement in education in history, and its implementation has prompted questions about testing, accountability, funding, and the future of local school control.

As Bush takes office for his second term, with a Republican-controlled Congress and a new education secretary in place, ASBJ decided to conduct a virtual roundtable on what the next four years might hold for education. Managing Editor Glenn Cook posed questions to seven respected education observers -- with views representing the political and ideological spectrum -- who responded in writing.

In addition to Usdan, the participants were:

Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute

Jack Jennings, director and president of the Center on Education Policy

Wendy D. Puriefoy, president of the Public Education Network

Andrew J. Rotherham, director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute

Ross Wiener, policy director of the Education Trust

Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Hereís what they had to say. (Their answers, in some cases, are edited for length.)

President Bush has promised to expand the reach of NCLB into secondary education during his second term. What do you see as the barriers to its continued implementation, and do you believe the legislation will be changed substantially in the next four years? If so, in what ways?

Rick Hess:
Itís pretty clear that NCLB wonít be statutorily altered before its 2007 reauthorization. Given that, it will be interesting to see how the administration seeks to extend accountability to high schools. The key barrier will continue to be the lawís reliance on states and districts to engage in acts that frequently run counter to their self-interest. This is a consequence of the lawís aspirational cast and its assemblage of sometimes awkward parts. How the reauthorization will address these issues is, to me, an open question at this point.

Jack Jennings: Barriers to implementation include a lack of sufficient funding to meet NCLBís demands and a lack of capacity at the state level to turn around schools in need of improvement. Another difficulty concerns students with disabilities and students learning English. Some of these children will be able to achieve at the levels set for all students, but some will not. All should be helped to do better in school, but to expect all to achieve at the same level is unrealistic at this time. There may be some regulatory and administrative relief from the U.S. Department of Education, but I doubt if there will be major changes in the legislation.

Wendy Puriefoy: The greatest impediment to NCLB is if policy makers go to sleep and do not deliver the necessary resources for the law to succeed. It is immoral if NCLB becomes an empty political one-way promise for poor children where the student is held accountable to the state for test performance, but the state is not held accountable to the child for providing a quality education. Last year, the Public Education Network held hearings around the country to hear the voices and opinions of students, parents, and communities about the impact of NCLB. We hope the administration and Congress will listen to these voices and be flexible enough to make changes that will strengthen educational reform while maintaining the lawís goals.

Andrew Rotherham: Regardless of whether one thinks itís a good idea, the primary obstacle to the presidentís plan to expand NCLB into secondary schools is the enormous amount of implementation work still to be done under the current law. ... It seems very debatable whether, considering these challenges, itís wise to increase the demands and pressures even more. In terms of NCLB overall, changes are almost certain. Itís a large and far-reaching piece of legislation that will need changes -- both changes foreseen by its congressional architects and change because of issues that have arisen during implementation. However, the changes will most likely be within the framework of the current law. Those hoping for a radical departure either toward a return to the toothless pre-NCLB policies or a dramatic increase in choice will probably be disappointed.

Michael Usdan: Itís quite clear that NCLB is the tail thatís wagging the dog, and youíll see its influence throughout the presidentís second term. But if they open it up to amendment to make major changes, there is such disaffection with so many provisions of the legislation that they might really open up a hornetís nest. The whole shooting match may be vulnerable. Any moves they make will be in a regulatory manner.

Ross Wiener: One of the biggest obstacles to implementation has been the speculation that the law would go away or be watered down before real reforms were required at the local level. This clearly is not the case: Congressional leaders and the president have signaled their determination to stay the course. Itís now up to local leaders to examine their policies and practices to ensure all students get what they need to meet state standards. NCLB is due to be reauthorized in 2006-07, so it almost certainly will be changed in some ways. It is too early to know what those changes will be.

Brenda Welburn: The enactment of NCLB came with very little input from those who would later be charged with its implementation and those most impacted by the legislation. Consequently, some of the billís shortcomings that could have been avoided at the outset must now be addressed by some reexamination of the law. While we canít expect a substantial change in the provisions impacting elementary schools, I think there will be changes if the law is opened. Without some assistance or change, the increasing number of ďschools in need of improvementĒ will overwhelm state resources and capabilities to provide assistance to low-performing schools.

Given the presidentís support for faith-based initiatives, do you believe religion will take a higher-profile role in the day-to-day life of a public school? If so, in what ways?

I donít see religion playing a higher-profile role per se. I do think the steady growth of supplemental services and likely administration efforts to promote vouchers on a limited basis may blur some of the traditional boundaries in this area. To the extent that explicitly religious questions are addressed, I suspect attention is most likely to focus on protecting the civil liberties of students of faith and ensuring equal access for religious groups.

Jennings: Since Bush received so much support from religious conservatives, he is bound to propose a number of measures to expand the influence of religion in American life, including in the schools. Bush may propose a constitutional amendment permitting school prayer, limitations on teaching about sexuality, and increased aid for vouchers for tuition paid at private schools.

Puriefoy: No school board should presume that it is immune to religious battleground issues such as gay rights, private school vouchers, school prayer, reproductive health programs, the ďmoment of silence,Ē and the back-door introduction of creationism-as-science. However, school boards and communities should use these controversies as ďteaching moments,Ē optimally engaging the public before the crisis occurs. Members of the faith-based community are often supporters of public education and see quality public education for all children as a social justice issue.

Rotherham: Emphasis on religion in the public sphere has ebbed and flowed at different times in our nationís history. It seems we are at a time when the role of faith is growing. If this is indeed the case, we can expect to see more debate and discussion of the role of religion in public schools and elsewhere in the public realm. As for vouchers, the problems I see there are much less church-state (and Zelman laid some of those to rest anyway) than basic public policy problems of program efficacy and accountability. In my opinion, the hopes of voucher supporters far outweigh what I see as the realistic impact we could expect voucher programs to have.

Usdan: I donít see this as a front-burner issue, but I may be dead wrong. My sense is that there will be rhetorical support for faith-based initiatives, but the administration and the department will have their hands full with NCLB. The president may engage in some political rhetoric, but I donít see the administration frontally taking on the church-state issue in terms of K-12, especially when youíve got some indigestible implementation issues related to NCLB.

Welburn: The issues that are important to this constituency will likely be more evident in public policy and funding priorities. For example, abstinence-based education has already gotten increased support from the administration and I think we can expect to see other initiatives supported by the faith-based community receiving financial and policy support.

Head Start, the Perkins Act, and the Higher Education Act are all up for reauthorization by Congress during the presidentís second term. Do you foresee major changes to these important pieces of legislation as a result of the administrationís focus on NCLB?

Hess: Itís clear the administration would like to extend the scope of performance-based accountability in early childhood and higher education. Finding ways to do so is a trick, and the debate will continue regarding efforts to hold Head Start centers or colleges and universities accountable using learner outcomes. Consistent with its larger efforts, the administration is also likely to continue its push to increase the emphasis Head Start gives to literacy and academic preparation.

Jennings: The administration may use Perkins as a vehicle to pass its ideas for expanded testing in high schools and for other ways to raise the academic achievement of high school students. Head Start may be amended to shift the program to state governments, instead of the current system of direct federal funding of local programs. The Higher Education Act may be amended to encourage improvements in teacher preparation and to expand loan forgiveness for new teachers who will take positions in high-poverty schools.

Puriefoy: The administration will seek to align these programs with major NCLB elements -- testing, sanctions, privatization, research-based programs, supplemental services, transfers. In essence, they will maintain the titles of the programs, but turn them into stepchildren of NCLB. ... Expect that each program will contain additional mandates that will be sorely underfunded.

Rotherham: Clearly the emphasis on data, results, and transparency embodied in NCLB will find its way into these other pieces of legislation. But each of these laws is different, and it would be a mistake to try to clumsily graft NCLBís measures onto them. Accountability in a program like Head Start, for instance, should look a lot different than accountability in elementary and secondary education.

Usdan: My sense is that the implementation issues and the resulting political and ideological fallout from NCLB will preoccupy the Education Department and the administration. I donít see any other dramatic education issues emerging during the reauthorization process, and if they did, there wouldnít be much money to pay for them.

Wiener: There will be an effort to make federal policy more cohesive and, in particular, bring a greater focus on closing achievement gaps in all federal education policy.

Welburn: Current proposals for Head Start and Perkins that are already circulating align these programs with NCLB, particularly in the areas of assessments and accountability. The administration has indicated that high school reform will be a major focus in the next four years, and the strategies of NCLB will be evident in whatever is proposed. There is also significant discussion around imposing greater accountability on higher education, so I think we can expect to see the influence of NCLB on pre-K through 16.

Some have criticized Margaret Spellingsí appointment as education secretary, in part because her focus is on NCLB and not on choice-based initiatives. What effect will this focus have on charter schools and vouchers?

In the public sector, accountability and market competition are inexorably linked. Choice, absent centralized benchmarks, invites dysfunction. In that sense, the notion that a secretary of education is either for choice or for accountability is false. The reality is that the administration is in a strong position to push for dramatic efforts to open up the K-12 sector to entrepreneurial energy. Whether it will seek do so is not yet clear, at least to me.

Jennings: I believe Spellings will reflect the views of Bush, which will mean the submission of proposals to expand charter schools and to provide aid for private school tuition vouchers.

Puriefoy: Ms. Spellings understands that, as U.S. Secretary of Education, her responsibility will be to develop the strategies and build the political will to move all 53 million public school students to proficient levels by the year 2013. She knows what the American people already know -- you cannot do this work to scale by pushing vouchers or charter schools. It can only be done by exerting every ounce of effort to improve the public schools our children already attend.

Rotherham: I think Margaret will ably carry out the presidentís wishes, but, at least until now, choice has not played a major part in his agenda. In fact, as a political matter, having her in the secretaryís role may deflect some angst about the lack of attention to choice that would otherwise be directed at him. The administration has a lot of work to do on NCLB, so while I hope they will vigorously support charter schools, the bulk of their energy should be focused on getting NCLB policies as right as they can.

Usdan: The president has great confidence in Margaret Spellings, and as one of the progenitors of NCLB, her focus will be on its implementation and effectiveness. I know there has been some unhappiness in conservative quarters about what they feel is her preoccupation with NCLB, but that likely wonít change. She is there to protect that bill.

Welburn: Ms. Spellingsí experience gives her a wide perspective on the realities and limitations of choice in advancing school reform districtwide. We hope under her leadership we will see a continued focus on serving the vast majority of American students who attend public schools. While there are expectations that the number of charter schools will continue to increase with the administrationís support and encouragement, my concerns around vouchers center more on what will happen with the Congress and in the states with an increase of new members and new governors supporting vouchers.

Over the past decade, more than half the states have faced -- and in most cases, lost -- lawsuits from local school districts over funding systems that have been ruled unconstitutional. At the same time, a number of states and local school districts have complained to Congress that NCLB is inadequately funded. Do you foresee solutions to resolve these critical financial issues?

Given staggering federal deficits and unfunded entitlement obligations, it is likely that all domestic discretionary programs will have to tighten their belts. At the state level, explosive growth in Medicaid and commitments to higher education mean that these ceaseless efforts in K-12 are going to require new taxes. Eventually, I suspect, there will be public backlash and demands that educators finally accept the productivity revolution.

Jennings: After the November elections, the Congress and the president reached agreement on an appropriation bill that provided basically for level funding for education. ... This indicates that there will be level funding or minor increases in federal education spending over the next several years. Furthermore, Bush has indicated that he will propose major changes in the federal income tax code and pay for some of these changes by eliminating the deductibility of state and local taxation. If Bush does in fact propose this, then the full burden of state and local taxes will be borne by taxpayers, who will probably press for a reduction in such taxation. In other words, states and local school districts may find it harder to support education if Bush succeeds with his ideas to amend the tax code and if there are no significant increases in federal spending on education.

Puriefoy: Even though continual pressure should be applied to the White House and Congress for additional NCLB funding, it unlikely that more federal dollars for education will be appropriated over the next four years, at the same time that many states are cutting education budgets. Every community needs to mobilize, build a constituency for public schools, and create powerful campaigns that pressure the White House, Congress, and state legislatures for adequate funding. These efforts need to be long term, require smart strategy and passionate advocacy, and make the case to citizens about the link between funding, increased achievement levels, and economic security.

Rotherham: Ironically, considering the alignment of NCLB friends and foes, No Child is going to be a powerful arrow in the equity-lawsuit quiver. The data it will generate will help quantify state finance problems and the necessary solutions. And, because the bulk of education funding comes from the state level, thatís where the action really is on this issue anyway. In the larger sense, considering this countryís demographic trends, public education supporters should be doing everything they can to broaden their base of support. They canít afford to antagonize various constituencies, because the squeeze on public resources is only going to grow. Reflexive opposition to NCLB, public charter schools, and so forth hurts rather than helps on the funding issue.

Usdan: I wouldnít use the word ďsolutionĒ in any context related to school finance reform. The courts have been making decisions on these issues for years, going back to the 1970s. Legislatures have the responsibility of coming up with more equitable formulas, but they tinker around with them, and not much happens. The courts keep making decisions, and the legislatures keep on tinkering. They take minimal steps to adhere to court mandates, and the plaintiffs keep going back into court again. I think that cycle will continue, and weíre probably going to see more of the same.

Wiener: These are not different problems. Both situations are symptoms of statesí inadequate and inequitable funding policies. States have primary responsibility for educating all students up to state standards, but their funding policies often do not reflect this. Districts that serve significant numbers of low-income students are routinely shortchanged by state funding policies. If states continue to default on this responsibility, the court cases will likely persist.

Welburn: Whenever we survey state boards of education, funding and finance are among the top three issues cited as challenging education today. Even with a large increase in funding for NCLB, which is not expected, the data that will be generated from NCLB will continue to exacerbate equity and adequacy lawsuits. The way education is funded in the United States is ripe for a comprehensive national dialogue. I simply do not see any branch of government -- state, local, or federal -- stepping forward to lead that dialogue toward meaningful change.

Finally, the increasing regulation of education by the federal government and state legislatures has made some question whether the time-honored notion of local control is becoming extinct. What do you see as the evolving role of the local school board?

The enactment of NCLB has occasioned an unprecedented shift in authority from states and districts to the federal government. Once such shifts occur, thereís little evidence that they ever reverse. At the same time, however, thereís been a growing emphasis on the role of effective governing boards in using data, sustaining reform, and authorizing new schools and providers. The next four years could be a propitious time for boards that seize these opportunities.

Jennings: Local school boards will continue to run local school districts, hiring superintendents and setting personnel policies. The new role for boards will be supporting these education professionals as they seek to raise the academic achievement of all students -- especially those who have not done well in school in the past -- and to improve schools that have persistently low academic achievement.

Puriefoy: Actually, there has been an incremental erosion of local control since the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, but NCLB represents the most dramatic federal programmatic reach into state and local school districts to date. Local school boards will spend more time on complying with federal and state mandates, establishing systems that align with state and federal requirements, raising more local revenues to subsidize state and federal designs, and assuming more direct accountability for regulations they had little or no role in developing or passing. For parents and citizens, the focus of education power and decision making is moving from their more easily accessible local school boards to state and federal bureaucracies.

Rotherham: NCLB punctuated a trend toward greater centralization in education policy making. However, I think most of the day-to-day decisions governing schools will continue to be made at the local level. The role of the school board and the nature of these decisions will likely change, but school boards and local school districts will continue to be a primary point of policy contact.

Usdan: I donít think the general public has an understanding of what school boards do or should do. People donít distinguish between boards and professional staffs, and there is widespread ignorance in this area. My issue with school boards is that they have to capitalize more fully on their political influence as elected officials. They have to wean themselves away from being viewed as just another professional education group. If local control is going to survive -- whatever local control means these days -- itís up to school boards to carry this issue to other officials. Too many boards are buried in minutiae and donít see the erosion that is taking place.

Wiener: Far from becoming obsolete, there is a growing recognition of the important role of school district policy in ensuring that all students receive a high-quality education. School boards have the important responsibilities of (1) ensuring curricular coherence throughout the district; (2) ending the practice of assigning the most inexperienced and underqualified teachers to the students who need the most help; and (3) providing meaningful professional development that helps teachers understand the districtís goals and gives them tools to meet those goals.

Welburn: The issue of education governance at the state and local level requires a comprehensive examination, but the political will to undertake such an examination is lacking. In the current climate, discussions of education governance usually arise when political leaders attempt to neutralize the authority of lay leadership at the state and local level to further centralize power. Whether itís the mayor of Washington, D.C., lobbying for the authority to appoint the superintendent, or the governor of New Mexico seeking a constitutional amendment to abolish the state board of education, the future of lay governance is under siege, and the National Association of State Boards of Education and the National School Boards Association must partner to meet these attacks head on.

— Glenn Cook, Managing Editor
American School Board Journal


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