By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Under pressure from the right and the left, President Bush said yesterday that he is open to reformulating his signature No Child Left Behind education law but stressed that he remains unwilling to surrender on its core elements of testing and accountability.
"As we move forward, we will continue to welcome new ideas," Bush said in the Rose Garden after meeting with civil rights leaders. "And I appreciate the ideas I heard today. Yet there can be no compromise on the basic principle: Every child must learn to read and do math at, or above, grade level. And there can be no compromise on the need to hold schools accountable to making sure we achieve that goal."
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 is one of Bush's most significant domestic initiatives but, as it comes up for reauthorization this year, it faces a barrage of criticism from conservatives and liberals who want to rewrite or sink it. Bush invited key civil rights leaders to the White House to emphasize his goal of using the law to reduce the historic achievement gap between white students and their Hispanic and African American counterparts.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and a prime ally of Bush in pushing through the legislation, plans to introduce a revised version by the end of the month. He repeated his long-standing criticism that the president did not fully fund it.
"The president is right that we must continue to hold schools accountable for results," Kennedy said in a statement. "But over the past five years of working with this law, we have learned more about what works and what does not work and we should take those lessons into account."
Some critics want to make the law more flexible in response to complaints that the program emphasizes test-taking over more creative forms of learning. Others contend that the law represents too much federal intrusion into local matters. And some critics want to adjust the consequences for schools that miss targets, depending on how far they fall short.
Bush noted that he favors more flexibility and resources for local leaders. He said he wants to increase access to tutoring and advanced placement courses, as well as to strengthen math and science education. He also argued for rewarding good teachers in low-income schools and providing children stuck in under-performing schools the opportunity to go elsewhere -- ideas that have long stirred debate.
Some of the civil rights leaders who met with Bush praised his efforts and promised to help push for reauthorization, although they have their own views on ways the law should be changed. "If this law is not reauthorized, it does send a terrible signal to the country as a whole," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
They urged Bush and Congress to provide more money. Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said Bush's proposed 2008 budget includes $15 billion for the program, $9 billion short of what was needed four years ago. His organization has offered its own 10-point plan for overhauling the No Child Left Behind Act, including revamped performance measurements, full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and $32 billion to fund the program.
"You can build the best automobile," Morial said. "If you don't put enough gas in the tank, you're not going to get up to the speed you want to get to on a sustained basis. That's why we're for full funding."