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NCLB Outrages

A juggling act on No Child Left Behind

Ohanian Comment: "Some critics," indeed. Too bad such critics as the folks at EliminateNclb and some of the 30,000+ at Educator Roundtable" aren't asked to speak for themselves--by the press or the corporate politicos.

By Nicole Gaouette

WASHINGTON -- Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) has never been one to back away from a brawl -- he once warned an adversary that if he wanted to fight, it was going to take a while, so he'd better bring lunch. But as Miller pushes to renew the landmark education law known as No Child Left Behind, he faces so many fights that the fate of the bill is increasingly in doubt.

As chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Miller is sparring with Republicans who see his proposed changes as an unacceptable watering down of the law's core standards.

Teachers object to his proposal to link pay to performance.

Even his fellow Democrats -- particularly freshmen who campaigned against it and members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- are giving him a hard time, largely for not doing enough to soften the law's most rigid requirements.

Some critics of the law say the emphasis on math and English testing has squeezed teaching time for history, science and other subjects. Others say that the law is too strict and punishes schools that are doing a fairly good job.

"People have a very strong sense that the No Child Left Behind Act is not fair, that it is not flexible and that it is not funded," Miller said in a recent speech. "And they are not wrong. The question is what we are going to do next."

The 2001 law, President Bush's hallmark domestic achievement, is supposed to be renewed every five years, although it remains in effect even if lawmakers fail to do that.

Democrats pledged to rewrite it this year, but time is short and political tensions are high. Congress plans to adjourn for the year in a few weeks. And some Democrats are loath to give Bush a victory on No Child Left Behind when he refused to compromise on the Iraq war.

The administration has also made clear it wants just minimal changes.

No Child Left Behind was designed to end what the president called the "soft bigotry of low expectations" by forcing schools to track data on low-income and minority students and holding the schools accountable if those pupils did not do well. Schools also have to show that all students are making adequate yearly progress in math and English, or face tough sanctions.

Miller drafted 1,036 pages of proposed changes with the committee's lead Republican, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita. But as Miller has tweaked that proposal to appeal to Democrats and teachers, he has lost Republicans.

The balance he seeks is between those who think the law's standards are too rigid and those who want them as tightly defined as possible.

A 33-year veteran of the House, Miller is known for his pragmatism, his ability to make a deal and his close ties to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), all of which may help him find an answer in the few weeks he has left.

"We're certainly not in full agreement," Miller said, mentioning talks with committee Republicans. "Not between my caucus and their caucus, not between Mr. McKeon and myself. Whether we can reach an agreement remains to be seen. We're pushing as hard as we can."

McKeon said he was hopeful that he and Miller could reach a compromise, but he expressed concern "that some provisions in the draft would weaken accountability, allowing schools to mask a lack of achievement in the fundamentals of reading and math and obscure the information provided to schools and communities."

For Miller, who has made children a focus of his career and has long advocated greater teacher accountability, working on the first No Child Left Behind bill was a natural cause. A staunch liberal, he was an odd partner for Bush, but they worked closely enough for the president to dub the burly former football player "Big George."

In the five years since Miller and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) helped write and pass No Child Left Behind, they complain, the administration has never fully funded the law in a way that would help schools meet their additional burdens. Republicans counter that few laws are fully funded.

The law has frustrated some parents and teachers who dislike its effect in local schools.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has told Miller that his draft continues to overemphasize standardized tests.

The cost, Wynn says, includes "extraordinary pressure placed on students and the loss of important instruction in music, art and other elements of a well-rounded education."

— Nicole Gaouette
Los Angeles Times


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