NCLB Reauthorization Stalls on Capitol Hill

Published December 1, 2007

The Bush administration and Congressional Democrats continue to pledge their commitment to seeing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) reauthorized during the 110th Congress.

But the outlook on Capitol Hill in late October remained unclear as early reauthorization efforts appeared to have stalled.

In September, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) publicly released draft legislation to reauthorize NCLB. Miller’s reauthorization proposal included significant changes to existing law.

Those changes included a proposal to allow states to incorporate multiple indicators into their standards and testing systems. The draft legislation also would give states the option of changing how specific student groups, such as special-needs students and English language learners, are tested. For example, states would be allowed to use native-language tests and portfolio assessments to measure non-English-speaking students’ performance.

The draft legislation also called for several new federal programs, such as measures to encourage “environmental education,” teacher training, and new bonus packages for teachers and principals.

Shaky Support

House Republicans have been critical of Miller’s draft proposal.

“I remain concerned that some provisions in the draft would weaken accountability, allowing schools to mask a lack of achievement in the fundamentals of reading and math and obscure the information provided to parents and communities,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), the committee’s ranking member, explained.

“I am also concerned about any effort to weaken or reduce the options made available to parents of children in underperforming schools,” McKeon continued. “However, I remain hopeful that we can ultimately develop a package of common-sense reforms that will improve the law without undermining the core principles to which I have been committed from the outset–accountability, flexibility, and parental choice.”

Miller faces a difficult challenge in trying to win support from Republicans for a bipartisan reauthorization while also maintaining support from Democrats. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, has criticized the draft legislation’s proposal to allow states to incorporate student assessments in deciding teacher compensation.

Liberals Divided

Dr. Matthew Ladner, vice president for research at the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank, described the divide between Miller and liberal interest groups, which could affect the reauthorization debate.

“This conflict reveals that progressives such as Miller, who want to improve the prospects for low-income children, will inevitably find themselves in conflict with the most reactionary force in American politics–the education unions,” Ladner explained.

“We have the technology to identify both high- and underperforming teachers in [a way that revolutionizes] learning and which is completely fair to teachers,” Ladner said. “The education union bosses, however, have drawn a line in the sand against treating teachers like true professionals by rewarding them according to their own accomplishments.”

Unclear Prospects

In the other chamber, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) has stated his intention to move a reauthorization bill in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. But at press time he had not yet released a full reauthorization bill or announced a specific date for a committee markup.

The Bush administration continues to support a bipartisan reauthorization of NCLB. But at a public appearance in October, Bush said, “any effort to weaken the No Child Left Behind Act will get a presidential veto.”

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