The No Child Left Behind Act -- the education bill passed by Congress in 2001 and signed by George W. Bush in 2002 -- comes up for reauthorization this year. NCLB injected into the federal aid to education program important doses of accountability -- yearly testing of kids from grades 3 to 8, consequences for failing schools, disaggregation of data by race and ethnicity -- and it seems to have resulted in some modest improvements in test scores.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is optimistic that it will be reauthorized. Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. George Miller have scheduled a bipartisan joint meeting of their committees for March 13 -- both played major roles in 2001 shaping the bill, which passed with bipartisan majorities. Yet 11 members of a bipartisan group of 12 Washington education law professionals surveyed in December by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute predicted that the new version will not be passed until 2009.
Perhaps this is because they think that Kennedy and Miller would rather wait until a Democratic president is in office. They have made it plain that they want a bill authorizing considerably more funding. Kennedy has been complaining since 2002 that the administration hasn't fulfilled its promise to spend the full amounts authorized then. Others do not recall such a promise and note that few programs are funded up to the full authorization amount. And the teachers unions -- an important Democratic constituency -- would probably like more money and less accountability. The Republicans involved -- Spellings and Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Rep. Buck McKeon of California -- seem primarily interested in more accountability.
On that, they have received serious intellectual support in recent months. An Aspen Institute panel headed by two former governors, Republican Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Democrat Roy Barnes of Georgia, called for beefed-up accountability measures, more public school choice, aligning state test standards with college and workplace standards, and more assessments in high school grades.
Bill Gates, whose foundation has been concentrating on education, is pushing for more rigor and better results in high schools. The Center for American Progress, headed by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, has teamed with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Frederick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute to urge more in the way of accountability.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and high-tech CEOs have emphasized that America needs better schools if it is to remain competitive. At the same time, there appears to be little support in liberal think tanks for the positions the teachers unions have taken over the years.