Education law's promise falls short after 10 years

By Kimberly Hefling

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 7 2012 8:25 a.m. MST

FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2011, file photo Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee member, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo,. speaks at the committee's hearing on the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act on Capitol Hill in Washington. Bennet, Denver’s former school superintendent, said at a recent forum on the law, “If you called a rally to keep No Child Left Behind as it is, not a single person would show up.”

Jacquelyn Martin, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The No Child Left Behind education law was cast as a symbol of possibility, offering the promise of improved schools for the nation's poor and minority children and better prepared students in a competitive world.

Yet after a decade on the books, President George W. Bush's most hyped domestic accomplishment has become a symbol to many of federal overreach and Congress' inability to fix something that's clearly flawed.

The law forced schools to confront the uncomfortable reality that many kids simply weren't learning, but it's primarily known for its emphasis on standardized tests and the labeling of thousands of schools as "failures."

Sunday marks the 10-year anniversary of the day Bush signed it into law in Hamilton, Ohio. By his side were the leaders of the education committees in Congress, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. The bipartisanship that made the achievement possible in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks is long gone.

The same Senate committee approved a revamped education bill last year, but deep-rooted partisanship stalled the measure in the full Congress. In this election year, there appears little political will for compromise despite widespread agreement that changes are needed.

Critics say the law carries rigid and unrealistic expectations that put too much of an emphasis on tests for reading and math at the expense of a more well-rounded education.

Frustrated by the congressional inaction, President Barack Obama told states last fall they could seek a waiver around unpopular proficiency requirements in exchange for actions his administration favors. A vast majority of states have said they will go that route, seen as a temporary fix until lawmakers do act.

Like Obama, Republican presidential candidates have criticized the law. One, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, even saying he regrets voting for it.

"If you called a rally to keep No Child Left Behind as it is, not a single person would show up," said Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Denver's former school superintendent.

The view was drastically different 10 years ago, when Bush took what was an uncommon stance for a conservative in seeking an aggressive federal role in forcing states and districts to tackle abysmal achievement gaps in schools.

He was able to get fellow Republicans such as Boehner, the current House speaker, and Democratic leaders on education such as Kennedy, who died in 2009, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to join him. The mandate was that all students read and perform math on grade level by 2014.

"No longer is it acceptable to hide poor performance. No longer is it acceptable to keep results from parents," Bush said when he signed the legislation. "We're never going to give up on a school that's performing poorly; that when we find poor performance, a school will be given time and incentives and resources to correct their problems."

The law requires annual testing. Districts must keep and publish data showing how subgroups of students perform. Schools that don't meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, from busing children to higher performing schools to offering tutoring and replacing staff.

The test results were eye-opening, recalled Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

"People were stunned because they were always led to believe that things were going fine in this particular school. And the fact of the matter was, for huge numbers of students that was not the case," Miller said. "That led to a lot of anger, disappointment. That led to embarrassment. In many instances, the schools were being held out as exceeding in their mission, when it fact they were failing many, many of the children in those schools."

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