GOP Bills Would Relax Test Requirements of 'No Child' Law

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

Republican critics of the No Child Left Behind law flexed their growing muscle yesterday as 57 GOP lawmakers, including the national party chairman, endorsed legislation that would undermine President Bush's signature education initiative.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who voted for the law in 2001, said he now opposes it because it has shifted control of public schools to the federal government in a more dramatic way than he ever imagined.

"The overwhelming intrusion of No Child Left Behind is too large to deal with unless you fundamentally change the legislation," Blunt said about the introduction of bills yesterday in the House and Senate. The bills would allow states to receive federal education aid even if they opt out of requirements to test all students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former Bush Cabinet member, was one of the sponsors of the Senate legislation. Others included Jon Kyl (Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, who voted for the law in 2001, and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a 2008 presidential hopeful, who also voted for it.

In an unusual show of bipartisan cooperation, Democrats and the White House attacked the GOP critics' legislation.

"Rather than work with us in a constructive way to improve the law, this group of Republican lawmakers is trying to dismantle it," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement. "Their irresponsible and unacceptable proposal would send billions of federal taxpayer dollars to the states with no accountability for how it is spent."

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that Bush supports giving states and school systems more flexibility but that the bills introduced yesterday would go too far. "We can't return to the time where there were no consequences for failing to educate children and accountability for federal education funding," Stanzel said.

The developments underscored the fluid situation in the Democratic-led Congress as opponents and proponents begin to debate renewal of the law. In 2001, Bush secured overwhelming bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind. Voting against the law were just 33 House Republicans, six House Democrats, three Senate Republicans and six Senate Democrats.

Now the opposition appears to be growing.

The legislation announced yesterday is not expected to muster enough votes to become law. But it stakes out a position for critics who hope to gain enough leverage to force significant changes.

Under the House version, states could opt out of the law's mandates through a referendum or through a decision made by a combination of state officials. The Senate version would allow states to opt out of some requirements through negotiations with the federal government.

Both versions would allow states to use nearly all their federal education funding, except money designated for special education, for any educational purpose. That idea is likely to encounter fierce opposition from most Democrats and education groups.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union and a frequent critic of the law, said it could not support the legislation announced yesterday because it would allow states to ignore vital programs, possibly for such purposes as funding vouchers to subsidize private school tuition.

"Those sorts of thing, we don't believe, are in the interest of all kids," NEA President Reg Weaver said.

Some key Republican supporters of No Child Left Behind, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), declined to criticize the legislation introduced yesterday.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, called the legislation a "reminder that Republicans in Congress remain committed to the fundamental concepts of flexibility and choice in education."

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who supports reauthorization of the law, said he nonetheless shared the critics' "visceral reaction" to the expanding federal role in education.

"No Child Left Behind represents the high-water mark of federal involvement in the management of local schools," he said. "It runs against the historic grain of American education, and it's been tough to swallow for a great many people. For that reason, reauthorizing it will be challenging."


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