NCLB Expansion in High Schools Concerns Congress, Governors

Published July 1, 2005

The prospect of President George W. Bush’s achieving a stated second-term goal of expanding the influence of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in high school reform looked bleak after a series of congressional actions this spring.

First, the U.S. House of Representatives registered bipartisan opposition to the president’s proposal for funding the NCLB expansion when it voted 416-9 to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act on May 4. In his FY2006 budget, Bush proposed diverting Perkins’ $1.3 billion to a new $1.5 billion High School Initiative that would include annual testing of all students and remedial intervention.

Earlier, the Senate had approved Perkins’ reauthorization 99-0. Republican and Democratic lawmakers argued Perkins supports effective vocational programs in their states. The White House Office of Management and Budget had said, “despite decades of significant federal spending, the current [Perkins] program is not adequately preparing our students to participate in today’s competitive workforce.”

The disagreement over NCLB’s role in high schools goes deeper than which pots of money are available to pay for it. That became clear at a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing May 17 that brought out bipartisan support for the idea that much-needed reform of high school curricula should be driven by states and local communities, not by expanding NCLB.

Flexibility Sought

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) declared at the hearing, “the case for change in America’s high schools is well documented: The graduation rate is too low, too many students are struggling learners, and much of the curriculum needs to be revamped to better prepare our youth not just to become employed, but also to be informed, compassionate, and productive citizens.” Vilsack lauded ventures such as Dual Credit that enable students to earn college credits while still in high school.

However, Vilsack warned against “one-size-fits-all” solutions and said, “just as each student has very individual gifts and needs, each school and each district is unique in its strengths and challenges, and must be allowed to develop its own plan for action, reform, and success.”

Federal Expansion Deemed Unwise

While praising Bush for putting high school reform on the national agenda, House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH), who championed NCLB in 2001, expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of expanding its reach into high schools. Boehner said he always has believed the federal government’s role in education should be “limited” but that NCLB “was necessary and justified because the federal government was already spending billions of dollars a year on K-12 education before NCLB was enacted, and the federal government wasn’t demanding results for children in return.”

Boehner added that because he’s a supporter of NCLB, “I have doubts about the idea of expanding it at this time. I’m not sure we’re ready to require states to do more under No Child Left Behind at a time when some are still seeking, unfortunately, to do less. I think we need to take a look at what states and communities are already doing proactively to transform high schools, and ask whether additional federal requirements are even justified.”

Students with Disabilities

Meanwhile, under Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ leadership, the Bush administration is moving to shore up support for NCLB as it currently operates, with a focus on required annual testing of the reading and math skills of children in grades 3-8.

In an effort to provide more flexibility for states without compromising the basic goals of NCLB, Spellings announced that states that failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) solely because of the test scores of students in the “disabilities” subgroup could adjust their goals to use alternative assessments for those students, who constitute about 2 percent of the total student population.

In a related move, Edward J. Kame’enui, an international authority on learning problems and special education, was named commissioner of the National Center for Special Education Research, an entity created by the 2004 congressional reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Head Start Reauthorized

The House Education Committee ended a partisan impasse by approving a bill to reauthorize Head Start, the preschool program originally begun as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty crusade. The bill, sponsored by Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Mike Castle (R-DE), seeks to beef up Head Start’s academic components, as Bush had proposed.

California Rep. George Miller, the Education Committee’s senior Democrat, thanked Republicans for responding to Democrats’ concerns by dropping proposals to include Head Start in block grants to the states–a step Miller said “would have ended Head Start as we know it.”

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior policy analyst at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.