The Battle Over “No Child Left Behind”

John Hanlon
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Posted: Jul 19, 2007 12:17 AM
The Battle Over “No Child Left Behind”

More than five years after the far-reaching education reform legislation became law, Congressman Scott Garrett (R-NJ) is fighting back over renewal of the bill to ensure that no child is really left behind.

Garrett, who noted in a recent interview with me that a blanket renewal of the “No Child Left Behind” law “as is” would be a “disservice”, is gearing up for a possible fight with the leader of his own party in this major domestic debate.

In January of 2002, President Bush, then twelve months into his first term in office, signed into law the sweeping education reform bill, “No Child Left Behind”. The White House fact sheet called it “the most sweeping reform of federal education policy in a generation” noting that “[T]he legislation, which closely follows the Presidents agenda to improve America’s public schools, passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan majorities” The bill, NCLB for short, ultimately created a federal power for those in Washington D.C. to set education standards and accountability for the entire country. Now, less than eighteen months before a new president will be sworn in, the “No Child Left Behind Act” is coming up for renewal in the Congress, where members of both parties have taken issue with the law.

Congressman Garrett, currently in his third term from the 5th District of New Jersey, says the bill takes control away from parents and teachers in defining education policies and standards, and gives that power to bureaucrats in Washington D.C. The criticism of NCLB, he stated in a recent interview, is universal with all fifty states having taken some action against the original bill. But instead of eliminating the bill, Congressman Garrett has endorsed what he refers to as a “modest proposal.” That modest proposal, entitled the LEARN Act, an amendment to NCLB that Garrett is sponsoring, would give states a chance to opt out of NCLB and set education standards and policy on a state level, while still receiving federal funds from the government in the form of a tax credit.

According to a statement from Garrett’s office, “[T]he LEARN Act… gives states the ability to opt out of NCLB and provides residents of those states a tax credit equal to the amount that they would have otherwise received in federal funding. This gives control back to the states, allowing them to pursue local and state educational initiatives based on what they believe will best help their students.” (It should be noted that another proposed amendment to the NCLB bill titled the A-plus Act would work in a similar fashion, although that bill would give states funding through block grants while the LEARN Act would give individuals back the money through tax credits.)

The benefits associated with Garrett’s amendment are “totally optional,” Garrett stated in his office, as states could nevertheless decide to stay with the NCLB formula if they so choose. With Garrett’s amendment, however, the Governor and the state legislature of a state would be given great decision-making power in choosing whether or not to opt out of NCLB. Such an amendment would give more power and authority to those individuals to have an influence over the education policies of their own state, which as Garrett stated is more in line with the “democratic process” and which, should be noted, is also more in line with conservative thinking on the subject.

Thus far, over two dozen members of Congress have signed on to cosponsor the bill from Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas to California Congressman John Campbell to Florida Congressman Tom Feeney.

Congressman Garrett, who was recently honored by the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste as a taxpayer advocate, is a strong supporter of a limited federal government. In the earmark battle, Garrett describes the battle over pork spending as a battle while the ultimate war lies in the debate over what the federal government should be doing in the first place. In the NCLB debate, Garrett is facing off against the status quo and the federal government’s power over education policies, a challenging conflict for any Congressman, let alone one who may be going up against the leader of his own party.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has not reacted to Garrett’s Amendment, though Secretary Spellings has previously discussed NCLB and its renewal with members of Congress.

Nor is Congressman Garrett assured that the state of New Jersey would use the amendment, if passed into law, to get out of its current NCLB obligations. However, in this debate, Congressman Garrett is working to allow New Jersey the chance to make its own decision on the subject.

NCLB stands to be a landmark domestic achievement on Bush’s record and its renewal would only cement its reputation. However, in this time of debate, the White House should focus its intentions on how this bill can be renewed with the support of conservatives like Congressman Garrett.

As the battle over renewal of NCLB continues -- and the war between federal powers versus state powers continues to wage -- Congressman Garrett continues to fight against Washington bureaucrats for state powers over federal ones, not a “modest proposal” by any means.