Congress Is Urged to Enhance 'No Child' Law

President Bush, back at the White House after spending the day in Chicago, wants Congress to give state and local agencies more flexibility.
President Bush, back at the White House after spending the day in Chicago, wants Congress to give state and local agencies more flexibility. (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

CHICAGO, Jan. 7 -- President Bush urged the Democratic-led Congress on Monday to revive a stalled effort to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law before he leaves office, but he pledged to veto any bill that "weakens the accountability" measures at the core of one of his signature domestic achievements.

To champion the law enacted six years ago, Bush spoke here at Horace Greeley Elementary, a school with a high percentage of Latino students, where reading and math test scores have jumped in recent years. Flanked by students in the school's small library, Bush said the law's requirement for measurable academic gains has led to improvement in schools nationwide.

"I know No Child Left Behind has worked," Bush said, as he urged Congress to revise the law to increase flexibility for state and local agencies without loosening the annual testing and enforcement provisions that give it teeth. "If Congress passes a bill that weakens the accountability system in the No Child Left Behind Act, I will strongly oppose it and veto it."

Bush's remarks came on the eve of the anniversary of his signing the bill, which was passed with broad bipartisan support and is considered one of his most significant domestic accomplishments. As attention shifts to the presidential election, chances for action in Congress are dimming. If the law is not reauthorized, it will remain in effect as is.

The three leading Democratic presidential candidates are calling for major changes or a complete overhaul. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who voted for the bill in 2001, has since criticized its impact and vowed to "end the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind." Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), who was not in Congress at the time, has called for changes and has said teachers focus too much on multiple-choice tests. Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who voted for the bill, also wants an overhaul, saying it has narrowed the curriculum and doesn't judge schools fairly.

The law calls on public schools to ensure that all children are proficient in reading and math by 2014, requiring testing annually in grades three through eight and once in high school. It has been praised for revealing pockets of struggling students, especially those who come from poor families, are minorities, have disabilities or are learning English. But the law has been criticized for its emphasis on testing and for what some say has been a lack of funding. A ruling released Monday from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit revived a lawsuit that is challenging the law as an unfunded mandate, the Associated Press reported.

Jack Jennings, president of the D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, said some presidential candidates, particularly Clinton and Obama, who are members of the Senate education committee, are unlikely to offer specific ideas for change for fear of alienating one constituency or another.

"I think the chances for reauthorization have slipped away," Jennings said.

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the committee's chairman, who helped engineer the law's passage, plans to introduce a bill in spring to revise it. In November, he met with presidents of two major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, in an effort to move toward consensus.

"We've learned a lot over the past five years about what works and what doesn't work with No Child Left Behind," Kennedy said in a statement. "Changes to the law are needed this year and we owe it to families, communities and the nation to give children the tools they need to succeed in school, in the workplace and in life."

Bush, in his remarks here, sought to rekindle the bipartisanship that fueled the law's enactment, pointing out Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), a leading Democratic strategist, to the audience. "As you know, we're from different political parties," Bush said, provoking laughter, "but we share a common concern, and that is doing what's right for America. Both of us understand that educational excellence is not a partisan issue."

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