No Child Left Behind faces contentious reauthorization

Children line up for school in Meridian, Idaho.
Children line up for school in Meridian, Idaho. Darin Owald / Idaho Statesman

WASHINGTON — In the five years since No Child Left Behind was enacted, resistance to the law has created some strange political adversaries and bedfellows in the halls of Congress and among education advocates.

Take, for example, the strained relationship between Jonathan Kozol, an award-winning author and education activist, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, an NCLB co-author and the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Though he's enjoyed a more than 40-year friendship with the senator, Kozol has grown frustrated by what he sees as Kennedy's reluctance to commit to a major overhaul of the law, which demands that every child be "proficient" — working at grade level in reading and math — by 2014.

"I pray Democratic leadership will not cave in and genuflect in front of a Republican agenda," Kozol recently told a gathering of journalists. "I'm here to make a plea to Kennedy to rethink his views about the law." Kozol has been on a modified hunger strike to protest the act for roughly three months.

Then there's the pairing of conservative Republicans such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who want to return such matters to local authority, and teachers unions such as the National Education Association, which is vowing to oppose reauthorization over proposals to include a performance pay provision.

"Education is a function that is best left mainly to parents, teachers and local school boards," Cornyn said in a statement. "As we reauthorize NCLB, we should pursue ideas to reinforce local control of innovation, even while ensuring accountability in the results."

Some states have threatened to opt out of NCLB, charging that the extra cost of testing causes an undue burden and that some of the law's accountability provisions unfairly penalize them.

The erosion in support for the mandate comes in the twilight of Bush's presidency and as his popularity wanes.

Where the president enjoyed bipartisan support in 2002 when NCLB was signed into law, two of the law's authors, Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, have since expressed concerns that the mandate has been underfunded.

Over the past year, Kennedy and Miller have met with educators, civil rights groups, business leaders, teachers unions and educational advocacy groups to determine the best way to retool the law. But even those groups widely disagree on what, if any, new shape NCLB should take.

Staffers on both the House and Senate education committees said they hope to put forth reauthorization bills in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, more than 60 House Republicans have co-sponsored a measure by Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., that would give states the right to opt out of NCLB. Dozens of other lawmakers in both chambers have introduced other bills that would affect the mandate.

As groups and lawmakers spar, the law faces a contentious reauthorization.

"Even as early as late 2000, when President-elect Bush was trying to get folks together, he had a fair amount of political capital on this issue. It was clearly one of his domestic priorities and there was some sense in Congress that something needed to be done. He was willing to come to the middle on that issue," said Andrew Rudalevige, an assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania who's written essays on the politics of NCLB and a book on Bush's political legacy. "That middle coalition has fragmented quite a bit, partly because there isn't a lot of political capital to be gained by supporting the president on this."

Influential groups with an interest in NCLB have picked up on Bush's weakened state and lobbied hard to make their voices and concerns heard.

"The last thing we want to see is bad NCLB legislation," NEA President Reg Weaver told a group of reporters recently. "I would want us to continue to try to slow the process down."

This stance frustrates organizations such as the National Council of La Raza, which has traditionally worked with NEA on education matters.

"The unions are pulling out all the stops; they are bullying people," said Raul Gonzalez, a legislative director with La Raza. "If they don't get what they want they will kill this bill. If this bill doesn't get past this Congress it is because of staunch opposition by the unions."

Business interests, on the other hand, are allied with civil rights organizations in wanting the law reauthorized.

"It's enlightened self-interest for the business community," said Susan Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy at the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of large companies. "The graduates of our schools are our future workforce. When people graduate schools without the skills they need in high school or college, it costs taxpayers' dollars to remediate them."