The Fate of NCLB

By Joetta Sack-Min

One of many adages in Washington is that controversial legislation usually won’t pass during campaign season because members of Congress are trying to get reelected.

That’s what happened to the No Child Left Behind Act.

Scheduled for reauthorization in the last congressional session, the seven-year-old federal law was left behind during a historic campaign that was dominated by the flagging economy and the war in Iraq. Now, the clock is ticking, with a 2014 deadline looming for all students to be proficient in reading and math, and more schools facing restructuring or other sanctions.

That 2014 deadline, or at least its requirements, is likely to be one of many changes that will be on the table when Congress renews its debate on the bill this spring. But given other --  some would say more pressing --  tasks ahead, it’s unclear how much of an immediate priority NCLB and K-12 education will be in Washington.

The law, which is still technically the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), was first passed in 1965. The next version may have a new name as well as significantly different means of measuring academic achievement.

“It may be that we won’t see any comprehensive work on ESEA until later in the year, with legislation not even passed until 2010, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a lot going on,” says Michael Resnick, assistant executive director at the National School Boards Association.

One thing Resnick is looking for in the reauthorization, he says, is “fresh thinking on the federal roles and accountability.” NSBA and other groups called on members of Congress to address some of the law’s looming problems when it first came up for renewal, rather than waiting for issues to compound. But the reauthorization became overshadowed by political tensions and other urgent issues, and as a lame duck, President Bush could not persuade Democratic leaders to give him what could have been a significant legislative victory to compliment his legacy.

Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an education consultant in San Diego, says NCLB now requires a major overhaul because Congress did not make changes as needed after Bush signed the law in January 2002.

“A little tinkering in the definition of bad schools and good teachers and reasonable goals for subgroups of kids would have gone a long way to making it workable,” he wrote in a blog for the Huffington Post. “By postponing the fix, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act now requires major open-heart surgery.”

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