Running From 'No Child'

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

CONGRESSIONAL inertia in reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act could well mean that the shape of federal education policy is left to the next president. But the law and its principles of standards-based reform have created splits within each party, and candidates are running warily. In large measure, Democrats are sticking to safe topics such as expanding pre-kindergarten programs, reducing class sizes and making college more affordable. Republicans are stressing their commitment to expanding choice in education.

When the issue of NCLB does come up, too often the impulse has been to launch a sound-bite attack. Among the worst: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and his repeated vow to "scrap it"; Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.), who called his vote for the 2001 law "a mistake" driven by his faith in its sponsor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); and former Tennessee senator Fred D. Thompson (R), who also regrets his vote because "it's not working."

In fact, No Child Left Behind, though flawed, is working. By bringing accountability into American classrooms, the law has made it impossible for schools to hide their failures in educating some children behind their successes with others. Results of testing as well as reports by outside groups show students doing better in math and reading, as well as a narrowing of the achievement gap between blacks and whites.

It's particularly disappointing that the three Democrats who sit on the Senate education committee and who could have a hand in the law's improvement and renewal -- Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Barack Obama (Ill.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) -- aren't doing a better job of speaking up for the good the law has done, particularly for poor and minority children. They, along with former North Carolina senator John Edwards (D), no doubt have to worry about the formidable grass-roots constituency of the National Education Association (NEA), which has declared all-out war against NCLB. But they could be acknowledging the bill's flaws while still standing up for accountability.

The candidate who has made the most sense is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), and that's because he speaks from experience. Mr. Romney has said he believes the "testing of our kids to be a good thing." He points to Massachusetts, which, nine years before No Child, instituted its own reforms of holding schools accountable for student achievement. The result has been improvement in student learning, with Massachusetts today held out as a model. Certainly NCLB needs adjustment, and Mr. Romney has some ideas -- such as focusing more attention on individual student progress and giving more flexibility to schools that meet or exceed testing goals. Those are the kinds of specific proposals voters need to hear.

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