President Obama will mount a fresh attempt this year to rewrite the No Child Left Behind education law, a top administration official said this week, and key congressional Republicans said they are ready to deal.
“The president is ready to move on this,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The Washington Post.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of a subcommittee on elementary and secondary education, said there is bipartisan consensus that the 2002 law should be overhauled. “We have a lot of common ground,” Hunter said. “We also see a major need. It’s time to get it done.”
Common ground might be scarce on other domestic issues as Obama heads into a reelection campaign and Republicans confront him with their new House majority. But even though the president is likely to push for a new education law in his upcoming State of the Union address, hurdles abound on Capitol Hill because school reform often splits both parties.
Several Republicans won House seats last year after expressing skepticism about the federal government’s role in schools, with some suggesting elimination of the Education Department.
But education was omitted entirely from the Republican platform “A Pledge to America,” and the party’s position has seemed in flux since President George W. Bush left office. Bush considered the law, passed with huge bipartisan majorities in Congress, one of his signature domestic accomplishments.
Meanwhile, Democrats are often divided over Obama priorities such as performance pay for teachers and expansion of public charter schools. Last year the party also debated the president’s policy of awarding some federal aid through contests such as the $4 billion Race to the Top — in which 39 states were non-participants or losers.
Under the 2002 law, states are required to test students in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school to hold schools accountable for making annual progress in closing student achievement gaps by 2014.
Schools that fall short year after year face various possible remedies, from student transfers to administrative shake-ups.
Obama favors better tests, more attention to student growth and broader measures of schools than snapshots of reading and math achievement. Last year he proposed giving most schools more flexibility to meet targets, while focusing intervention on the lowest performers.
To propose revisions to the education law would open a wide-ranging debate on school funding (most states face painful budget cuts), vouchers for private schools, performance pay, national standards, special education, bilingual education and school safety, among other matters.
Bush pushed No Child Left Behind through Congress in his first year in office. President Bill Clinton secured an education rewrite in his second year. Whether Obama can make it happen in his third or fourth year is an open question.
Some Republicans say a big bill could die of its own weight. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, has indicated that he might push instead for a series of small education bills. Duncan said Monday he was “open to that conversation” but does not want to leave major problems unaddressed.
Even such matters as branding — crucial in the politics of school reform — are up in the air. Few lawmakers like the name No Child Left Behind anymore, but no one has come up with a better idea than the formal name since 1965: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“We’ll take your suggestions,” Duncan said. “We’re wide open.”