Proposed No Child Left Behind Overhaul Introduces New Dimension to Budget Debate
Mar 16, 2011
By Kristen Friend, staff U.S. Supreme Court and Congress writer – March 16, 2011
President Barack Obama pressed for action on education Monday, directing Congress to complete an overhaul of No Child Left Behind by the start of the next school year. The request comes in the middle of an ongoing debate about what to cut and what to keep in the current federal budget, a signal that the president may be trying to regain control of a narrative that is increasingly focused on cuts over spending priorities.During a visit to Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., Obama delivered remarks outlining his goal of prioritizing investment in education. Implementing fixes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is central to this aim, he said. 
Obama stated that the intent of NCLB, which was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by President Bush in 2002, remains laudable. He acknowledged the law has proven to be a valuable tool in highlighting previously underreported achievement gaps. However, he said, policies over the last 9 years have failed to achieve the aims of NCLB. The current methodology for implementation, according to the president, is flawed. 
In outlining his case for national education overhauls, Obama added his voice to the already heated budget debate. He recognized in his remarks that education reform will cost money. As House Republicans continue to threaten a government shutdown over proposed budget cuts, the president argued that investment education is too important to ignore. “We can’t cut the things that will make America more competitive,” he said. “A budget that sacrifices our commitment to education would be a budget that’s sacrificing our country’s future. And I will not let it happen.” 
It is a point of contention whether increasing educational opportunities will spur growth. The argument seems intuitive: a well-educated workforce will spur greater innovation and, ultimately, economic growth. Some recent studies have shown that is not always the case in the short term.  A comprehensive strategy to tackle job creation must include more than just an increase in spending on education.
While it may be true that simply throwing money at education will not automatically create jobs, a positive relationship between investment in education and future prosperity has been shown to exist. Countries that have invested most heavily in education since 1900 lead the world in per capita GDP.  This is also true for the health of a democracy. These same countries tend to have more stable democracies and less authoritarian rule over the long haul. 
The 2002 incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act represents the most comprehensive set of changes to the law since in was originally passed in 1965. It places emphasis on reading and math skills and requires that students in grades 3 through 8 and high school take standardized tests to determine whether schools are meeting their Annual Yearly Progress standards. Schools that do not meet AYP standards are labeled as needing improvement, or in more common parlance, failing. The law also requires that all schools be 100 percent proficient in reading and math by 2014. 
According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, more schools fail to meet progress standards every year. Secretary Duncan told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week that up to 82 percent of schools could fail to meet standards this year, up from 37 percent last year. “The law has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed,” Duncan said. “We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible and focused on the schools and students most at risk.” 
Obama’s remarks on Monday echoed the concerns of Secretary Duncan and of critics who claim current measures of progress are too inflexible. Scoring school performance on a pass/fail basis, he said, misses many ways in which schools may actually be improving. Rather than focusing ridged reading and math standards, the president requested a new emphasis be placed graduating students who are prepared for college and careers. 
According to teachers and administrators, schools have for years been struggling to prove they are not failing even while they show considerable improvement. In 2005, a Hawthorne, Calif. middle school labeled as needing improvement worked tirelessly to meet its AYP goals. The school, Bud Carson Middle School, made exceptional progress, meeting goals in 20 of 21 areas, but still received a failing grade. 
Schools labeled needing improvement two years in a row are required to provide students with the means to attend other, better performing schools. According to California superintendent Jack O’Connell, this punishes schools unfairly and takes much needed funds away from actual education. “We have to take away resources that we can document are improving achievement and put them into transportation to bus kids to other schools,” he said. 
While research shows that NCLB has forced many schools within the United States to turn around, results in comparison to other countries are more mixed. Since its implementation, American students have not shown overall improvement in comparison to children around the world. 
Part of this phenomenon could be the result of a lack of common education standards. Each state is responsible for setting its own definition of passing and failing, and states have proven more than willing to lower standards in order to boost school performance. In 2007, 85 percent of students in Georgia tested proficient in reading according to state requirements. But only 28 percent tested proficient on the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. 
There is a strong tradition of state and local control of schools in America, resulting in a hodgepodge of state guidelines. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers drafted a new set of core reading and math standards last year to address this issue.  Many states have already indicated a willingness to adopt the benchmarks, but their implementation could be threatened by cuts in federal funding.
Education has been a top priority for the Obama Administration, although it has not provided splashy headlines like health insurance reform and a possible government shutdown. The recent push to focus media attention on education is another in a series of efforts to address reforms. The president also laid out his strategy for overhauling NCLB in his 2011 budget proposal, minus the timeline he requested on Monday.
Proposed changes to the law include removing the 2014 deadline for math and reading proficiency, broadening academic areas of testing for student progress, implementing a tiered system of evaluating schools and expanding the Race to the Top grant program. The target of assessment will shift from “grade level” testing to new criterion of “college and career readiness.” The timeline would change, with the goal of meeting new readiness standards by 2020. The president’s proposal also calls for more rewards and incentives to be offered to schools showing progress and the development of varying means for helping schools on different performance tiers. 
Implementing a growth model, where schools are judged on student advancement, is key to Obama’s plan. Since schools will no longer need to exert all their energy on getting enough children to test at grade level, the plan will offer more flexibility for many schools to try a variety of approaches for improving growth. The lowest performing schools would have tighter federal mandates for improvement, but no mandate to provide options for student transfers.
Getting an overhaul of No Child Left Behind passed by the fall looks to be a difficult process. Congress appears willing only to pass temporary budget measures while bickering over relatively small cuts to current fiscal year expenditures. The current two-week temporary funding measure expires on Friday. Congress managed to pass another three-week extension on Tuesday, but questions remain as to when this cycle of budgetary baby steps will end. Republicans seem eager to limit investment in education, with some going so far as to claim any federal involvement in education to be unconstitutional. 
Expanding Race to the Top funding is also controversial. Critics of the initiative come from both sides of the aisle, and some in the education field question the program’s effectiveness. Obama is calling for an additional $1.4 billion in funding for the program for the remainder of the fiscal year. Getting that money from a tight-fisted Congress (House Republicans voted last month to end funding for the program) will be a challenge.
According to Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, “The reforms may be stillborn because there won’t be the money to put them in place.” 
Democrats may be able to fashion a bill that adheres to the president’s requests and timeline. Convincing enough Republicans to join them, given their refusal to compromise on many issues, will be the ultimate deciding factor.
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