Having halted the Bush-Kennedy “grand bargain” on immigration, many conservatives are expressing newfound optimism that they can do the same to the president’s signature education achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act.
The landmark 2001 bill is slated to expire unless Congress reaffirms it this year. With immigration off the table, reauthorization now becomes one of the top domestic policy priorities for a legacy-hungry White House. The only problem is, conservatives have found this bill to be just as infuriating as the grand bargain. Some of the harshest critics of the immigration deal have already lined up in opposition to reauthorization.
It’s a markedly different political climate from when the bill was first debated. Then, few conservatives put up a fight. NCLB won approval in the House, 381-41, and passed the Senate on an 87-10 vote. Coming in the wake of 9/11, it sailed through Congress at a time when the country was grappling with the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history.
Only now, as the law faces reauthorization, have conservatives begun to speak out loud against Washington’s expanded role over local schools. It doesn’t help that the bill was crafted with the aid of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), the liberal lion who renewed his partnership with Bush to produce the “comprehensive” immigration fiasco.
The right’s primary complaints have to do with the testing policies instituted by NCLB. Those policies, conservatives charge, have prompted states to lower standards and weaken transparency.
Compounding the problem for Bush is that one of the law’s leading critics used to serve under him as deputy secretary of the Department of Education. Eugene Hickok, who now works at The Heritage Foundation as a Bradley Education Fellow, was the man responsible for bringing states and schools into compliance with NCLB.
In a paper released last week, Hickok and Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute analyzed what has gone wrong with the law and how it could be fixed. They recommend that Congress shift greater policymaking authority to states. Not only would it give parents and citizens more meaningful information about how well local schools were performing, it would also “begin to restore citizen ownership of American education” -- something Hickok and Ladner say was lost with NCLB.
Their solution could come in the form of the A-PLUS Act, a bill sponsored by some of the same conservatives buoyed by defeat of the immigration reform bill. All the three sponsors of the A-PLUS Act -- Senators John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) -- took a very public stance against the failed amnesty bill.
Cornyn and DeMint were among the first to criticize the Senate bill. Hoekstra, meanwhile, masterminded a one-line resolution condemning the bill, which was overwhelmingly adopted by the House Republican Conference, 114-23.
The trio’s new challenge is to make the debate over No Child Left Behind as prominent as immigration. It won’t be easy, but they have momentum on their side.
They should also have something else working in their favor: a greater willingness from the White House to listen to their concerns. When I asked Education Security Margaret Spellings about the A-PLUS bill in April, she told me she hadn’t talked to its sponsors since its introduction.
But even one of NCLB’s most prominent supporters said the White House can no longer ignore the law’s critics. “I believe No Child Left Behind will eventually be reauthorized and should be, but I think that Senators DeMint and Cornyn’s proposal needs to be taken very seriously,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told me last week. “I would expect that their concerns will have to be accommodated somehow in the legislation.”
For all his stubbornness on immigration, President Bush would be wise to follow that advice. Extending his hand to critics now would present an opportunity to patch up the wounds inflicted during the immigration debate. It might also lead to a better bill.