GOP revolt threatens Bush’s No Child Left Behind program

Five years after President Bush got a Republican-led Congress to pass a landmark law that forces schools to give students more tests, his party is leading a revolt.

When Congress signed off on the No Child Left Behind legislation in December 2001, one Republican, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, said it represented a new era that would benefit students across the country, and he saluted Bush’s leadership. Now Brownback, who’s seeking the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, would be happy if states could just opt out of the federal testing mandates.

Ditto for Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, the House’s second-ranking Republican. After co-sponsoring the legislation, the minority whip now says he regrets voting for it.

Is No Child Left Behind about to get left behind? While no one is predicting its immediate demise, discontent is growing on Capitol Hill.

So far, 66 Republicans — 59 in the House and seven in the Senate — have signed on to The A-Plus Act, legislation that would allow states to sidestep the yearly tests.

Many Democrats want to alter the testing requirements, giving states more leeway in how they measure progress, especially for students with disabilities.

Even strong advocates of the law acknowledge that at least some tweaks — and more money for schools — will be required before Congress can renew it this year.

The A-Plus Act is the latest in a string of challenges to No Child Left Behind:

  • The state of Connecticut sued the federal government two years ago, saying Congress had failed to provide enough financial support to implement the law.
  • The states of Virginia and Arizona have questioned rules dealing with the testing of students with limited English skills.
  • Utah has tussled with the Department of Education over a requirement that every teacher have the equivalent of a college degree in the subject that he or she teaches.

In California, education officials embrace the act’s requirements for annual testing — the state has had an annual testing program in place since before No Child Left Behind took effect — but are fighting other aspects of the law. The biggest objection concerns the clash between how California determines whether a school is doing well and how the federal government defines success under No Child Left Behind. The state gives schools a thumbs-up if student test scores improve from one year to the next. But No Child Left Behind requires that all schools — and all ethnic groups of students within each school — meet specific performance targets each year. That’s created a confusing situation for many schools: They can be labeled a success by the state and a failure by the federal law.

State schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell — a Democrat — has been lobbying for changes to the law that would give schools credit for improving scores, even if they don’t meet the absolute targets now in place.

“It’s all stick and no carrot,” said O’Connell’s deputy superintendent, Rick Miller. “It doesn’t offer us ways to make schools better, just to punish them.”

But some California educators say the two systems complement each other. Katie Curry, principal of Tahoe Elementary School in Sacramento, said the federal law has helped her school improve.

“The purpose behind No Child Left Behind — to make sure we identify achievement of all students — is what has been important and a good change for what we do,” Curry said. “It’s made us focus on all students, instead of generalities.”

Hers is just the kind of school the law is intended to help: three-quarters of Tahoe Elementary students are nonwhite and 100 percent of them receive subsidized lunch.

In 2001, critics of No Child Left Behind feared that the law would give Washington too much power over local schools. Much of that suspicion came from conservative Republicans, who nevertheless bowed to the popular first-term president after he made education an issue in his 2000 campaign.

Bush prevailed by arguing that federally mandated tests would put a spotlight on failing schools and pressure them to improve. Since then, the president’s popularity has plummeted while teachers and school officials have stepped up their criticism of the law.

Some of the strongest backing for the law on Capitol Hill now comes from Democrats, who charge that Republicans want to abandon the testing requirements while still giving federal money to schools.

Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the Republican plan was an attempt “to turn back the clock on reform.” In 2001, he worked closely with the Bush administration to craft the law. He said it had become “a national commitment” and that it would be wrong to abandon it.

–ROB HOTAKAINEN

(Scripps-McClatchy Washington Bureau’s Rob Hotakainen can be reached at rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com. Sacramento Bee staff writer Laurel Rosenhall also contributed to this story.)