WASHINGTON—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 of Representatives 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 acknowledge that at least some tweaks—and more money for schools—will be required before Congress can renew the law this year.
The legislation 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 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 top-ranked Democrats, who charge that Republicans want to abandon the testing requirements while still giving federal money to schools.
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the 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.
After meeting last week with business, education and civil rights leaders, Bush said there was "a universal belief" that No Child Left Behind should be renewed and that it was necessary to keep the United States competitive with other nations. In a speech in Indiana last month, he vowed to oppose any attempts at "watering down" the law, which he called one of the most important of his presidency.
Bush said the law "is working across the country." As proof, he noted that test scores have improved and the achievement gap between white and minority-race students is closing. Before the law, he said, schools could "quit early on a child" and move him or her on to the next grade, but that's no longer allowed.
"In life, if you lower the bar, you get lousy results," Bush said. "If you keep raising that bar, it's amazing what can happen."
Opponents of No Child Left Behind say test scores have risen only because schools have focused on teaching the basics, often at the expense of programs for gifted and talented children.
The tests are aimed at making all students proficient in reading and math by 2014, but teachers and school officials have complained that they put too much emphasis on a single test score. Members of Congress are getting an earful in their districts as they prepare for their deliberations.
The Republican "A-Plus Act" would allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind in different ways. Under the House bill, states could hold referendums, or two of three entities—the governor, the legislature and the state's top education officials—could make the decision. Under the Senate bill, states could negotiate charters with the federal government allowing them to bypass the testing requirements.
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND
What's the goal?
To have all students reading and doing math at their appropriate grade levels by 2014. To that end, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have accountability plans and assess students annually in grades three through eight.
Is it working?
Yes, supporters say. The Bush administration says the decades-old "achievement gap" between white and nonwhite students is closing. From 1999 to 2004, the gap between African-American and white 9-year-olds narrowed by 9 points in reading and by 5 points in math, and the gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white 9-year-olds narrowed by 8 points in math and by 7 points in reading. Those gaps represent an all-time low, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
No, critics say. They say the law gives Washington too much power over local schools, and they argue that test scores have risen only because schools have focused hard on the basics, often at the expense of programs for gifted and talented children. Many teachers and school officials say the law is too burdensome and has increased bureaucracy.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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