Key Republican Ready to Roll Back Testing Mandates of ‘No Child Left Behind'

Rep. John Kline said he wants
Rep. John Kline said he wants "maximum latitude" for states on education. (By Ryan Kelly -- Congressional Quarterly Via Getty Images)
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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009

As the Obama administration considers new legislation to fix schools, House Republicans have chosen an education policy leader who is eager to turn the page on the No Child Left Behind era and roll back federal mandates for testing students.

The ascent of Rep. John P. Kline (Minn.) last month to ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee marked a watershed. For the first time since enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002 under President George W. Bush, the top GOP member on a congressional education committee is not someone who voted for the landmark law. Kline wasn't even in Congress at the time.

Unlike his predecessors, who gave Bush crucial support for the law, Kline said he is not committed to the core requirement of testing all students in reading and math in grades three through eight, and once more in high school. He said he wants to give states "maximum latitude."

"I'm not looking to tweak No Child Left Behind," Kline said. "As far as I'm concerned, we ought to go in and look at the whole thing."

President Obama is jettisoning much of the rhetoric and symbolism associated with No Child Left Behind, but he has yet to offer a detailed proposal to revise the law, which has waned in popularity and is overdue for reauthorization.

Experts say it is unlikely that the president would seek to scrap the testing requirement. If anything, he appears to want tougher tests.

House Republicans have almost no power to block the Democratic majority. But Kline and a growing number of like-minded members of his party devoted to local control of schools are likely to complicate Obama's efforts to build a broad bipartisan coalition for the next generation of education reform. Bush overcame many Republican doubts about enlarging the federal role in school policy. It remains to be seen whether Obama can do the same.

The law requires states to report test scores separately for groups of students, including racial and ethnic minorities, poor students, those with limited English skills and special-education students. The spotlight on scores is meant to force educators to focus on narrowing any achievement gaps. Schools must advance toward a goal of 100 percent student proficiency by 2014, and those that repeatedly fall short can face interventions that include a management takeover.

Rep. George Miller (Calif.), now the committee chairman, was one of two key Democrats who teamed with Bush on No Child Left Behind. The other was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), now chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), now the ranking Republican on Kennedy's committee, also voted for the law.

As ranking House Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, Kline succeeds Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), who took the GOP's senior slot on the Armed Services Committee. Current House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was the education committee chairman when the law was enacted.

Kline, 61, a retired Marine officer who carried the emergency nuclear-attack briefcase known as the "football" for Presidents Carter and Reagan, won his House seat in 2002. At first, he was willing to give the new education law a chance. But he said he soured on it after fielding persistent complaints from educators and parents.

"Let's back the federal government out of dictating to schools how they're going to do their business," he said.

He said he hopes to find common ground with Democrats to increase special-education funding and expand independently operated, publicly funded charter schools. But he criticizes Democrats for failing to reauthorize a program that provides low-income D.C. students with vouchers for private-school tuition, and he opposes Democratic efforts to expand direct government lending to college students.

Dan Lips, a Heritage Foundation analyst, said Kline's rise coincides with "an opportunity for Republicans to return to their more conservative roots [on education], favoring moving decisions back to the states."

Amy Wilkins, of the Education Trust, which supports efforts to close achievement gaps, said Kline's stance harks back to a "pre-Bush" view on schools. "There is still a set of Republicans who see a legitimate federal role in driving education reform forward," she said. But within the party, "they may be in the minority now."

Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan paid Kline a visit on Capitol Hill.

"He feels the same sense of urgency I do, that we need to get dramatically better," Duncan said later. Duncan said he told Kline that he wants to push for higher academic standards but giving schools more flexibility to achieve them -- "be much looser at the local level, let folks innovate." Duncan said that message "seemed to resonate with him."

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