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NCLB Outrages

Democrats Divided on ‘No Child’ Reauthorization

Ohanian Comment: The word from the Hill is that NCLB has moved from a fast track to a slow freight.

One could hope that Democrats might learn something from this, learn, perhaps, that they can't take their constituents for granted. Hope. . . but don't hold your breath.

By Michael Sandler

California Democrat George Miller has clashed publicly with Republicans and the White House in recent weeks over his vision for renewing a landmark 2002 education law.

But an equally precarious fight is shaping up within his own caucus.

Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is hearing negative feedback behind the scenes from several Democrats. They are troubled by the discussion draft he circulated in late August that will probably serve as the basis for the legislation.

Some of the strongest comments have come from Albert R. Wynn, D-Md., who sent Miller a letter expressing âstrong concerns regarding the direction we appear to be heading in reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act.â Wynn outlined four areas in the draft that did not meet with his approval, including testing requirements that have become the main area of disagreement over the law.

âIf the bill ultimately presented to the House does not reflect significant changes . . . I will have difficulty supporting its passage,â Wynn said in the letter.

Wynn sent copies of the Oct. 4 letter to all members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and that group subsequently scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue.

Losing black lawmakers on the law (PL 107-110) designed to bridge the achievement gap between minorities and whites would be a devastating blow in itself. But Miller also has to work hard to win over some freshman Democrats, many of whom campaigned against the law championed by President Bush.

Miller has said he wants to pass bipartisan legislation, something the House managed in 2001 when Republicans were in charge. But his plan also is drawing criticism from Republicans, most notably Howard P. âBuckâ McKeon of California, the ranking member on the committee. McKeon says he and Miller have reached an impasse and without some sign of compromise, Miller can expect minimal, if any, support from Republicans.

Complicating the matter is a simple reality: In order to gain Democratic votes, Miller will likely have to move further away from the GOP. On the other hand, Millerâs Senate counterpart, Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, who is awaiting House action, will need GOP votes to get the measure through his chamber.

That conundrum makes an already challenging reauthorization next to impossible with the 2008 election a year away. With every month that passes without action, the prospects for moving legislation in the 110th Congress appear to be fading.
Calendar Slips

Miller and House leadership must also weigh inaction against a public fight that is at the mercy of both partiesâ extremes â a risk that could end much like this yearâs immigration debate, which imploded in the Senate. While the education law does not draw the same visceral reaction as immigration, it does strike a nerve with parents and educators who have the most direct connection with its testing requirements.

Those considerations appear to have had an impact. Millerâs initial target for marking up the legislation moved from July to September, and then October. The current resistance from both sides now points to a November starting point if thereâs any chance at all.

When asked about the bipartisan criticism and its effect on the schedule, Millerâs spokesman, Tom Kiley, said: âChairman Miller continues to work on legislation to strengthen and improve the No Child Left Behind law, and as he has from the start of the process, he welcomes the ideas and suggestions of Congressman McKeon and any other member of Congress from either side of the aisle.â

At the heart of the debate is the lawâs mandate that states rely on standardized tests to measure âadequate yearly progressâ in reading and math.

A number of Democrats want the reauthorization to change that requirement if not do away with it altogether. Miller has gravitated toward their idea by proposing that states be allowed to consider âmultiple measuresâ of progress. That would allow such indicators as other state tests or graduation rates to determine up to 25 percent of the formula for secondary students and 15 percent for elementary school students.

âI think itâs a positive step, but from my perspective it is not enough,â said Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee.

Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth, a freshman who sits on the Education and Labor panel, agreed, saying the percentage based on testing â as much as 85 percent for elementary school students â âis still too high.â He also said several members have concerns about a provision in the draft that could provide performance pay to teachers based on test scores.

Yarmuth said he believes a bill can be introduced by November that would win over some critics. But he stopped short of saying whether it could pass.

âDo we have the votes or not? I donât know,â he said. âItâs like a Rubikâs Cube, coming from multiple angles.â

In addition to testing, Wynnâs letter cited a lack of attention to increased class sizes, not enough resources to stem the number of dropouts, and concerns over performance pay tied to testing. He urged Miller to take âas much time as necessary to do this reauthorization right.â

Wynn said in an interview that he has yet to hear from Miller. âThe point was not to draw a line in the sand,â Wynn said. âThe point was to share concerns.â

Miller must balance demands from his own members with those coming from Republicans, who donât want to see any shift away from testing.

They also take exception to Millerâs proposal that would reduce the number of students who would receive after-school tutoring under current law.

This month, a 90-minute meeting that included Miller, McKeon, Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., and Michael N. Castle, R-Del., ended with McKeon declaring an impasse, saying Miller refused to budge on any GOP requests.

Sixty-four Republicans are supporting legislation (HR 1539) sponsored by Michigan Republican Peter Hoekstra that, in Hoekstraâs words, would make the law voluntary.

McKeon said he can deliver a majority of GOP members, but that wonât happen without some compromise from Miller.

âI donât know where he gets Republican votesâ with the current proposal, McKeon said. âAnd Iâve talked to some Democrats who have a hard time supporting it.â

— Michael Sandler
Congressional Quarterly Today


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