No Child Left Behind and the Brewing Fight Over Education

There's broad consensus on education reform, but there are deep fault lines underneath.

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Andrew J. Rotherham is Co-Founder and Publisher of Education Sector and writes the blog Eduwonk.com.

The languishing reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is turning lawmakers into educational Michael Corleones, pulling them back into a business many fervently wish was over. Although the landmark education law is overdue for its scheduled five-year overhaul, contentiousness left the last Congress unable to even get a bill out of committee. This year other issues like the economic recovery bill, healthcare, and the "card check" unionization bill made it easy for Congress to put off the tough work of revamping the law.  

Undeterred, after a national "listening tour" Education Secretary Arne Duncan says he wants to see a new version of the law passed early next year. Duncan's challenge is to ensure that when Congress finally does finish its work, the emphasis on underserved students, accountability, and reform are maintained.

The path to success is daunting because serious fault lines lie just below the surface of the seemingly broad support for reforming America's education system. Debate over No Child reauthorization is likely where they will spill into the open on Capitol Hill.

Because of the structure of the economic recovery act, Congress had little control over what Secretary Duncan did with key parts of the $100 billion in stimulus money dedicated to education. So far Duncan and President Obama have pleasantly surprised many observers by holding a tough line on reform. That, of course, has not endeared them to education's array of interest groups. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten recently derided Duncan's policies as "Bush III" in the Washington Post.

Yet if special interest groups and less reform-friendly members of Congress can't change Duncan's plans for "Race to the Top" school reform competition among states, they can work their will on the reauthorization process for the No Child law. Indications are that they're planning to do exactly that in a political environment favoring them.

The legislative coalition that supported the 2001 law is gone. Sen. Ted Kennedy died earlier this year. Sen. Judd Gregg is no longer even the ranking Republican on the Senate education committee. In the House of Representatives, former education committee chairman John Boehner is now the Republican minority leader with a lot more on his plate than schools.

That leaves current education committee Chairman George Miller, a California Democrat, as the last man standing from the "big four" that forged the final bipartisan deal with President Bush in 2001. Miller, whose long career in Congress is an everyday testament to the folly of term limits, has maintained consistent support for the No Child policy. But the three-decade veteran of Congress was unable to move a reauthorization bill out of his committee in late 2007 in the face of intense opposition from teachers' unions and other special interest groups and mixed signals from the Bush Administration. It will not be any easier this time.

Democrats are skittish about the overall political climate, and losses in the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia hardly build their confidence to take on key interest groups. For their part, despite a great deal of bipartisan consensus on the substance education policy, leading Hill Republicans are sending signals that political bipartisanship may not be possible this time around. Republican leadership on the issue comes from state leaders like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and out of work politicians, for instance former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, rather than elected Republicans in Washington.

Substantively, the law does need some changes. The accumulating evidence indicates that standards-based reform by itself will be insufficient to truly transform today's public education system, so bolder ideas are essential. Meanwhile, after seven years there is an accumulation of housekeeping issues demanding action, especially around some of the law's accountability rules. Secretary Duncan also needs to figure out how to use the federal law to sustain the Race to the Top efforts after that money is spent. In particular, he must be able to use both other federal dollars and his regulatory authority to continue to incent and reward leading states.