March 15, 2007 in Nation/World

Bill could soften ‘No Child Left Behind’

Jonathan Weisman and Amit R. Paley Washington Post
 

WASHINGTON – More than 50 House and Senate GOP members – including the House’s second ranking Republican – will introduce legislation today that could severely undercut President Bush’s signature domestic achievement, No Child Left Behind, by allowing states to opt out of its testing mandates.

For a White House fighting off attacks on its war policy and dealing with a burgeoning scandal at the Justice Department, the GOP dissidents’ move marks a fresh blow on a new front. Among the co-sponsors of the legislation are House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a key supporter of the bill in 2001, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, Bush’s most reliable defender in the Senate. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House GOP’s chief deputy whip and a supporter in 2001, has also signed on.

Burson Taylor, a spokesman for Blunt, said that after several meetings with school administrators and teachers in southwest Missouri, the House Republican leader turned against the law he helped pass, becoming convinced the burdens and red tape of No Child Left Behind are unacceptably onerous.

Some Republicans said Wednesday a backlash to the law was inevitable. Many voters in affluent suburban and exurban districts – Republican strongholds – believe their schools have been most adversely affected by the law. Once-innovative public schools have increasingly become captive to federal testing mandates, jettisoning education programs not covered by those tests, siphoning funds from talented-and-gifted programs and discouraging creativity, critics complain.

To be sure, the law is widely expected to be reauthorized this year. Ranking Republicans on the House and Senate education committees are pushing for renewal. And key Democrats, including Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairmen of the House and Senate committees responsible for drafting an updated No Child Left Behind, are strong supporters, though they want increases in funding.

Still, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., author of the new House bill, said the number of Republicans already backing the new measure exceeds the 41 House Republicans and Democrats who voted against the original law in 2001. Of the House bill’s co-sponsors, at least eight voted with the president six years ago.

“President Bush and I just see education fundamentally differently,” said Hoekstra, a longtime opponent of the law. “The president believes in empowering bureaucrats in Washington, and I believe in local and parental control.”

As Congress considers reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, the GOP rebellion could grow, conceded Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee and a key ally of the president’s on the issue.

“It was a struggle getting it passed last time. It’ll be even more of a struggle this time,” McKeon said.

Under Hoekstra’s bill, any state could essentially opt out of No Child Left Behind after one of two actions. A state can hold a referendum, or two of three elected entities – a governor, a legislature, or a state’s highest elected education official – can decide the state will no longer abide by the strict rules on testing and curriculum.

The Senate bill is slightly less permissive, but it allows a state to negotiate a charter with the federal government to get from under the law’s mandates.

In both cases, the states that opt out would still be eligible for federal funding under the act, but those states could exempt any education program but special education from No Child Left Behind strictures.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said advocates do not intend to repeal No Child Left Behind, bristling at the notion that they would gut a law so important to Bush. Instead, they want to give states more flexibility to meet the president’s goals of education achievement. As a House member in 2001, DeMint opposed No Child Left Behind when it first came to a vote, but he voted for it on final passage.

“So many people are frustrated with the shackles of No Child Left Behind,” DeMint said. “I don’t think anyone argues with measuring what we’re doing, but the fact is, even the education community, especially the education community, see us just testing, testing, testing, and reshaping the curriculum so we look good in the face of that testing.”

Republican lawmakers involved in the new legislation say Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and other administration officials have moved swiftly in recent days to tamp down dissent within the president’s party. Spellings has met with about 40 Republican lawmakers since January on the issue, an Education Department official said.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in the past five years in serving the children who have traditionally been underserved in our education system,” said Katherine McLane, the department’s press secretary. “Now is not the time to roll back the clock on those children.”

But so far, the administration’s efforts have borne little fruit, Republican rebels said.

“Republicans voted for No Child Left Behind holding their noses,” said Michael Petrilli, a former Education Department official in Bush’s first term, who is now a critic of the law. “But now with the president so politically weak, conservatives can vote their conscience.”

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