No Child Left Behind Faces Murky Future in Congress

Published September 1, 2008

As the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) awaits an uncertain fate when Congress returns to session this fall, debate is brewing over whether schools should continue to be held accountable for achievement standards.

Civil rights groups have expressed their staunch opposition to efforts that would gut the accountability measures.

President George W. Bush created the legislation, unpopular with Democrats and even some in the Republican Party, in his first term to monitor school performance via test results and performance reviews. Some observers are calling for federal legislators to rework the standards-based provisions currently in place.

The No Child Left Behind Recess Until Reauthorization Act (H.R. 6239), introduced June 11 by Reps. Sam Graves (R-MO) and Tim Walz (D-MN), is a bipartisan proposal to release schools temporarily from the original legislation’s standards.

Many civil rights groups, including the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the Hispanic civil-rights organization, oppose the bill.

“NCLR is very concerned about the No Child Left Behind Recess Until Reauthorization Act, which would gut the accountability provisions of NCLB until it is reauthorized,” explained the group’s spokesman, Raul Gonzalez.

“NCLR believes that NCLB’s accountability measures have been critically important in shining a light on the low achievement of students from Latino, African-American, and low-income communities. It has required educators to focus on these children,” Gonzalez said.

Civil Rights Issue

Other groups joined forces to write a letter urging people to contact legislators and lobby against the bill. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), composing nearly 200 groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and National Organization for Women, sent the letter to Congress June 18.

LCCR maintains NCLB is a civil rights law and some of its requirements govern children’s rights to obtain a quality education. The NCLB Recess Until Reauthorization Act calls itself a “temporary suspension” of those requirements. Critics note this could force children who’ve used the law to transfer to a higher-performing public school back into the schools that failed to meet NCLB standards.

“While the law has not worked perfectly, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members across the country are working with the law to help students make academic progress,” Gonzalez said.

“This proposed bill would dishonor the work of educators, parents, and the students themselves to close the achievement gap,” Gonzalez continued. “It is a shame that while students are enjoying their summer vacations, some grownups here in Washington are trying to make a backroom deal to deny them educational opportunities.”

Potential Rewrite

Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), who represents a district consisting primarily of African-Americans, said Congress plans to work on rewriting the original legislation this year.

“As a member of the Education Committee, we’ve decided we’re going to rewrite No Child Left Behind,” Davis said. “We don’t intend to rewrite the baby with the bath water. We intend to hold onto the best features of the legislation and discard the worst ones and come up with some changes that will make No Child Left Behind a real road map to public education in the United States of America.”

Real Accountability

But without systemic reforms that hold schools accountable, the transparency NCLB provides may not be enough, experts say.

Derrell Bradford, executive director of the New Jersey-based school choice advocacy group E3, points out Newark’s per-pupil spending is as high as $20,482, the average teacher makes $80,000 a year, and the city has a nearly $1 billion school budget–but only 60.8 percent of seventh graders are proficient on a math assessment in which the state defines “proficient” as getting just 33 percent of the test questions right.

In Camden, Bradford notes, only one in five eighth graders scores above 55 percent in language arts, while the city’s annual education spending is $340 million for 13,000 students.

“This is not accountability,” Bradford said. “Though the information is vital and never would have been available without NCLB, … no one gets fired while these students’ lives are tossed away.

“Twenty-one thousand dollars should buy high standards and achievement for a student,” Bradford continued. “But to buy accountability, it has to buy a way out for them also. Until the lid is removed from the transfer provision, and we stop asking local low-performing districts–the offenders–to also be the regulators, we will continue to have a more and more frightening conversation about how the lives of low-income students are being lost daily, but we will not have a serious discussion about what it takes to make serious, wholesale, radical change in these schools.”

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Austin, Texas.

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H.R. 6239: