The Center May Not Hold for NCLB
Five years ago, after then House Majority Whip Tom DeLay entered his first vote for President Bush's No Child Left Behind bill, he went on Rush Limbaugh's radio program and apologized.
"I'm ashamed to say it was just blatant politics," he said. "I can't even remember another time I've actually voted against my principles." (He eventually voted against the final bill.)
Today, Bush's signature education law is up for renewal, but Republican loyalty like DeLay's will be harder to come by. Rep. Roy Blunt, the new No. 2 Republican in the House, yesterday joined a group of 57 GOP lawmakers in a revolt. Sens. Mel Martinez and Jon Kyl, the chairs of the Republican National Committee and the Senate Republican Conference, also signed on. Like DeLay, both Blunt and Kyl had supported the law in 2001.
"Bush had a lot of political capital then," says Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. "Now, I think [these Republicans] are all feelingI'd use the word liberated."
Bush supports a fast renewal of NCLB, and his secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, is working hard behind the scenes to get it. The Republican legislation introduced yesterday would not just delay that process; it would gut the law, releasing states from testing and restructuring mandates without forcing them to lose federal funding. The legislation will almost certainly not win approval, but it did send a clear message: Republican leaders no longer stand strongly behind the Bush administration on education.
But the mutiny is against more than Bush. It is also against the law itself. In just five years, the law has transformed public education, giving the federal government more say over what and how children learn than perhaps ever before. To maintain federal funding, all levels have had to change practice: States have had to develop detailed math and reading standards for third through eighth grade, teachers have had to devote weeks of their school year to testing those standards, and schools have had to live by the tests' consequences, facing sticks like forced restructuring or mandatory after-school tutoring if their students don't perform.
While the Bush administration has declared this revolution a success, pointing to higher test scores in elementary and middle school, teachers, parents, and administrators across the country have railed against it, saying it actually hurts their ability to educate childrenand they have not been quiet.
Blunt, who supported the law in 2001, says he changed his mind on the law after talking with educators in his home state of Missouri.
Worse yet for Bush, Democrats, the new majority party on Capitol Hill, are also skeptical.
Sending a letter pleading for more flexibility to his Democratic colleagues, Sen. Russ Feingold cited his state of Wisconsin.
"There is growing frustration around the country about NCLB," he said. "It is our responsibility to ensure that those voices are heard."
In a February interview, Time magazine asked Hillary Rodham Clinton about her first campaign visit to Iowa. "One thing that surprised me," she said, "were the number of questions I got about No Child Left Behind. I know that's a problem for people, but this was more intense than I had expected."