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As Congress Tarries, Administration Proposes Changes to 'No Child' Law

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings cited wide support for the proposals.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings cited wide support for the proposals. (By Jeff Gentner -- Associated Press)
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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Bush administration proposed major changes yesterday in enforcement of the No Child Left Behind law, including some regulations meant to tighten oversight of public schools, as efforts to revamp the landmark education act have stalled in Congress.

In the most significant shift, all states would be required by 2013 to use the same formula to calculate the high school graduation rate, an effort to shine a light on the nation's dropout problem and force schools to take steps to ensure that more students earn diplomas. The formula would be based on the number of students who graduate on time after four years of high school. States use a variety of methods to calculate dropout rates, prompting criticism that they understate the problem.

The proposed rules also would require officials at low-performing schools to better inform parents about a key requirement of the law -- that certain children be given access to government-funded tutoring or the chance to transfer to a school with better test scores.

During a visit to Detroit, which has one of the country's highest high school dropout rates, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said that many of the proposed changes have wide support and that she took action because Congress has not.

"I'm proposing new policy tools that will give families lifelines and empower educators to create dramatic improvement," Spellings said. "Many are actions that have gained broad support through conversations on how to strengthen No Child Left Behind. While I will continue working with legislators to renew this law, I also realize that students and families and teachers and schools need help now."

Congressional action on renewal of the law, considered one of President Bush's most significant domestic achievements, is increasingly unlikely with the presidential campaign in full swing. If the six-year-old law is not reauthorized, it will stay in effect as is.

Both Democratic presidential candidates have criticized aspects of the law. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who voted for the bill in 2001, has vowed to "fight the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind." Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) wasn't in congress at the time but also has called for changes.

Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust, a District-based advocate of better schools for the disadvantaged, applauded the effort to require a better accounting of high school dropouts. She said that as congressional action becomes increasingly doubtful, the administration is using all its power in the waning days to put its stamp on how the law is carried out.

"They are looking at the calendar and recognizing that the chances for reauthorization this year are dimming, and they are trying to do what is needed to improve the law," Wilkins said. "Whoever is elected in November, they've got the war, they've got the economy, and they've got health care. I have a hard time imagining how a No Child Left Behind reauthorization can compete."

Jack Jennings, president and chief executive of the District-based Center on Education Policy, said the bulk of the proposals would tighten accountability and make it more difficult for schools to comply with the federal law. Those that repeatedly fall short of benchmarks face sanctions, up to mandatory restructuring. He said the changes would "cause more resentment against the law."

School officials in the Washington area said they are reviewing the proposals to assess the potential effect on schools. In Virginia and Maryland, systems are being put in place to allow schools to track the progress of each high school student to determine how many graduate in four years.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats accused each other of blocking progress toward a comprehensive renewal of the law.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the changes Spellings proposed "amount to tinkering with a law that needs significant improvements."

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), the committee's ranking Republican, said Democrats have "all but ignored the pressing need to revitalize this law that impacts our nation's schools."

The No Child Left Behind law, which Bush signed in 2002, aims to have all public school students proficient in reading and math by 2014. It requires schools to test students in those subjects annually in third to eighth grades and once in high school.

Final regulations would take effect in November after a public comment period.


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