President Bush and first lady Laura Bush are scheduled to host a White House celebration today of the first anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education law that imposes new standardized tests on students and new accountability requirements on the nation's public schools.
But one year into the law's implementation, the spirit of "bipartisan cooperation" that Bush credits for propelling it through Congress seems to be evaporating. Congressional Democrats have accused the White House of reneging on large, continued funding increases they say are needed to make the law work. Many state education officials, meanwhile, are expressing concern that the exacting regulations governing the law's provisions for measuring school success will result in a majority of the nation's schools being deemed failures -- an outcome they fear will ultimately undermine support for public education.
In a letter to be sent to Bush today, 42 Democratic senators who supported the law predict that it will fail "without a substantial increase in resources." In the letter, the lawmakers ask Bush to back a $7.7 billion increase they are seeking in the $50 billion the federal government spends on education. Bush has sought a $1.4 billion increase, saying that larger sums are not feasible in a wartime budget.
With states across the country facing huge and widening budget shortfalls, Democrats insist that an increase in federal spending is necessary to implement wide-ranging reform in the nation's public schools.
A survey by Education Week, an education trade publication, found, for example, that students in low-achieving, high-poverty schools are far more likely to have uncertified or inexperienced teachers than are their more affluent counterparts. Also, many of the nation's low-income students do not receive the full range of federal education programs for which they are eligible, because of budget constraints.
"America's public schools cannot overcome the enormous obstacles they face on the cheap," says the letter to Bush, whose lead signatories are Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), two of the strongest Democratic supporters of the law.
The concerns about funding and the regulations guiding the law's implementation have done little to sway the Bush administration, which believes the law is crucial to its vision of school reform.
"We believe really that for the first time all the proven pieces of reform have been put together in one place," Sandy Kress, a former Bush education adviser, said at a recent seminar. "These elements have been on the education to-do list for a long time."
The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to administer standardized reading and math tests to students each year in Grades 3 through 8. Schools must make steady progress toward raising achievement levels on the exams, with all students required to reach state-defined proficiency levels by 2014.
Schools deemed failing for two consecutive years must begin student transfers to better schools -- even those filled to capacity -- and use public money to hire private firms to tutor students. If a school continues to be labeled failing, it must replace its principal and teachers or reopen as a charter school.
"The [law's] emphasis on results, accountability, regular assessments, coherent professional development . . . continue to be on the mark," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large, urban public school systems.
Similarly, much of the public seems to favor the law's strict accountability provisions -- as do many of the law's growing chorus of critics. But there is disagreement about the funding needed to achieve the law's goals.
A national poll to be released today by Americans for Better Education, a nonpartisan advocacy group, found that 91 percent of Americans support requiring schools to set and meet goals each year to show that all children are making academic progress. Moreover, the survey found, far more respondents said that raising standards was more crucial to school improvement than increasing funding.