Calls to fix 'No Child' are crossing party lines
By: Amanda Falcone, Record-Journal staff
President Bush says the No Child Left Behind Act is working and has made reauthorization of the fed-eral law one of his top priorities. But many on Capitol Hill feel serious changes in No Child Left Behind are needed.
"He's out of touch," U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney, D-2nd District, said. "There's just universal dissatisfaction."
With the law set to expire on Sept. 30, the Bush administration has announced what it hopes to achieve with renewal of the act. Formal legislation, however, has yet to be submitted.
Mention No Child Left Behind to most educators, lawmakers and parents and the conversation can quickly become heated. Many say the act imposes mandates that are not properly funded, and school districts risk losing federal money if they do not meet the expectations. They also say the law conflicts with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and that it is unfair to expect English language learners to meet federal benchmarks.
Meant to help close the achievement gap in the United States, No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002, has sparked debate across the country.
"It's a powerful issue," said Courtney, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives' Education and Labor Committee. "Emotions are running high."
Bush and the U.S. Department of Education use early data comparisons to show that students and teachers are responding to the law. More reading progress has been made by 9-year-olds from 1998-2004 than in the previous 28 years combined, they say. The U.S. Department of Education reports that math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders have improved and that the achievement gaps in reading and math between black and Hispanic 9-year-old students and their white peers have narrowed to all-time lows.
The Bush administration says progress has been made while the academic bar has been raised, but throughout the country many are frustrated. People often say they agree with the law's goals, but that the implementation is faulty.
"It's the details that are very erroneous for school districts," said Robert J. Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.
Even several Republicans, who once supported the law, are calling for change.
Two Republican bills-one in the House and one in the Senate-look to restore decision-making power to state and local governments and limit federal control. For example, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., has introduced a bill that would give states and local communities flexibility to determine how to improve academic achievement and bring about educational reform. His bill has 55 co-sponsors. None are from Connecticut.
"We are moving in a direction where states provide the funding and the federal government tells them how to spend it," said Hoekstra, who voted against the initial bill in 2001. "I think that's inappropriate."
Connecticut's boards of education are in favor of once again being allowed to make their own decisions, Rader said, using special education as an example. The educators that work with these students - not the federal government - should decide if they need to take alternate assessments, he said. The pro-cess should be similar to the rest of a special education student's academic life, which is determined by an individual education plan developed by school staff, he said.
Many of the Republicans who voted in favor of No Child Left Behind in 2001 are disappointed in the law and the federal government, said Hoekstra, who is also a member of the House Education and Labor Committee. The federal government has a "heavy hand," he said.
Although he foresees splits in both the Democratic and Republican caucuses on reauthorization, Hoekstra believes Congress has a "real shot" at restoring some local control and at least stopping the expansion of the act.
Hoekstra said he, along with his bill's supporters, have received positive feedback from constituents. They want their local schools back, he said.
"It's really a fascinating situation right now," Courtney said. "I think the president's base has really eroded on No Child Left Behind."
Congress has already held two hearings on reauthorization this year. Courtney said he believes that most agree that continuity is lacking when measuring school and student progress. Instead of adequate yearly progress, which does not allow educators to track a student's progress on standardized tests over time, Courtney said many want to establish a growth model. This model would allow schools to track the progress of individual students from one year to the next.
U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., proposed legislation that would have established a growth model last year, and his staff said he plans to reintroduce the bill this year. Last year, members of the U.S. Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions read Dodd's bill, but it was never debated.
The National School Boards Association, including the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, is also supporting a growth model, looking for more flexibility and more federal funding. U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, has submitted legislation that closely aligns with the association's recommendations.
"We certainly think the law should change in many different ways," Rader said.
"It looks at though Congress has recognized the need for greater flexibility," said Thomas Murphy, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education, adding that the state has little to do with the reauthorization process unless it is asked.
"We await decisions," Murphy said.
Although many in Congress are questioning and opposing No Child Left Behind, Courtney said they would consider Bush's recommendations. It is a "legacy hold-over," and it is the president's top priority, he said. It is premature to say what effects it will have on Bush's legacy if Congress goes against his plans for No Child Left Behind, but the president has used up a lot of credibility in a variety of ways, Courtney said.
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