Congress Prepares for NCLB Reauthorization Debate

Published August 1, 2007

After months of committee hearings, congressional leaders are now looking to begin the legislative process for the scheduled reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Democrats control Congress, but Republican leaders are proposing an agenda of policy ideas to be considered in the reauthorization.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor committee, will play a lead role in the reauthorization process.

“House Republicans have consistently fought to maximize flexibility for local schools and options for parents whose children attend underperforming schools,” McKeon explained. “My goal in this reauthorization is straightforward–arrive at a final product that balances flexibility and choice with real accountability to ensure taxpayers know what kind of return they are getting on their substantial investment in K-12 education.”

Alternate Bills

To address those goals, “I’ve introduced legislation to give parents whose children attend underachieving schools the option of sending them to a better-performing private school through Opportunity Scholarships,” McKeon said, “as well as a bill to give school districts the unprecedented ability to shift billions in federal dollars toward education programs that meet their unique needs.”

McKeon also highlighted other initiatives introduced by his House colleagues.

“Congressman Tom Price [R-GA] has introduced legislation to authorize a teacher incentive fund to give states and school districts a chance to reward our highest-achieving teachers through locally designed performance-pay programs,” McKeon noted. “And Congressman Charles Boustany [R-LA] soon will introduce legislation to target charter school funds toward states without [enrollment] caps and to make the charter school option a more attractive one during school restructuring under NCLB.”

‘Race to Bottom’

McKeon didn’t suggest making fundamental changes to NCLB’s core testing regime or the national goal to have all students score “proficient” on state exams by 2014–an issue many analysts say must be addressed.

Dr. Matthew Ladner, vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute, a free-market think tank in Phoenix, explained the problem in the existing law.

“Requiring states to have 100 percent proficiency, but leaving the test contents and passing thresholds up to them, is a recipe for a ‘race to the bottom’–which is exactly what we are seeing,” Ladner said. “Ironically, NCLB is the greatest threat to public school transparency out there, as states dummy down their tests to avoid federal sanctions.”

Ladner said fundamental changes to NCLB are necessary.

“States need to create their own accountability systems,” Ladner explained. “In return for their 7 percent of K-12 school funds, the federal government ought to have more modest goals, such as promoting transparency. As it is, NCLB is in terrible danger of completely backfiring and deeply discrediting the notion of top-down accountability in the process.”

Capitol Hill Timeline

The timeline on the reauthorization debate is uncertain, but McKeon is confident the legislation will be handled in 2007.

“Staff has begun meeting to work through legislative language, and I believe we can see the reauthorization pass the House sometime this summer,” McKeon said. “The Senate, as always, is another story. However, I’m hopeful we can see this through to completion this year.”

Dan Lips ([email protected]) is an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.