Education Reform Goes From Bad to Worse

Robert Bluey
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Posted: Sep 09, 2007 12:00 AM
Education Reform Goes From Bad to Worse

No Child Left Behind has seen better days. Under attack from both the right and left, President Bush’s signature education achievement might not survive if some members of Congress get their way.

House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) offered a 435-page legislative draft last month that rewrites several provisions and guts the few measures in the law that limited-government conservatives support.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wants to go one step further and rename the law to something other than No Child Left Behind.

So not only does the Bush administration face the prospect of significant policy changes, it could also lose the marketing appeal of the law’s name.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who last week fought back against the proposed changes, might be better off with the status quo than trying to reauthorize the law in a hostile Congress. Her biggest gripe was Miller’s attempt to water down the penalties schools face for failing to live up to the law’s testing requirements, but it’s just one of many differences that need to be addressed.

Meanwhile, conservatives who are seeking to trim government bureaucracy, end ineffective programs and restore state and local control in education won’t find much to like in Miller’s 435-page draft. His other changes include new regulations, more programs and fewer options for school choice. Miller has also made no attempt to fix No Child Left Behind’s structural problems.

Changes to the school-choice provisions are particularly troublesome given the large number of congressmen who support private schools in their personal life. A report from The Heritage Foundation last week revealed members of Congress send their kids to private schools at a rate nearly four times that of the general population.

Two notable examples are Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). But they’re not alone. More than 37 percent of House members and 45 percent of senators have sent their children to private school. Meanwhile, 52 percent of Congressional Black Caucus members and 38 percent of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have had at least one child in private school.

Despite those surprisingly high numbers, Miller’s proposed changes to No Child Left Behind gut its school-choice provisions. It seems some members of Congress—who are paid $165,200 per year—have no problem personally taking advantage of school choice, but they are willing to reduce the school-choice options for those without financial means to afford it on their own.

As Democrats push for these changes, conservatives have taken the opposite approach. Led by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), a group of Republicans are pursuing legislation known as A-PLUS. Their bill attempts to bring greater transparency to No Child Left Behind and reduce the additional 6.7 million hours that school officials are spending to comply with the law.

“No Child Left Behind originally sought to return some education policy-making authority to the states, but in its current form the legislation is a massive spending bill filled with federal mandates that increase the presence of federal bureaucrats in our classrooms,” Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), a co-sponsor of the A-PLUS Act, said last week on the House floor.

It’s too bad Spellings was so quick to reject the conservatives’ ideas earlier this year. While their proposal might not have been exactly what she wanted, it would be a significant improvement over the big-government solutions that Miller hopes to pass into law.

At this point, no conservative could support what Miller has proposed. If liberals are serious about the changes they want to make, it’s only a matter of time before the Bush administration realizes it won’t get anything good from this Congress on education policy. The status quo just might be a better option.