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“THE COST OF WAITING”: Key Congressional Staff Say that Reauthorizing NCLB is a Priority in 2008

"The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement," he said. "It is succeeding. And we owe it to America's children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law."

In his State of the Union address on January 28, President Bush called on Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which he referred to as a “good law” that is succeeding. Bush briefly touched on some specific changes that he wanted made to the law, including increased accountability, added flexibility for states and districts, extra help for struggling schools, and reforms to reduce the number of high school dropouts.

“The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement,” he said. “It is succeeding. And we owe it to America’s children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law.”

A few days after the State of the Union address, the Commission on No Child Left Behind and other education policy organizations (including the Alliance for Excellent Education) hosted an event on Capitol Hill, “Improving No Child Left Behind Now: The Cost of Waiting,” that featured Congressional and administration leaders on NCLB reauthorization, as well as school and community representatives from across the nation.

In his opening remarks, Roy Barnes, former governor of Georgia and co-chair of the Commission on No Child Left Behind, urged Congress to reauthorize NCLB. “Make sure that we implement and renew this law,” he said. “This is something that needs to be done this year. Just because we have a presidential election does not mean that we stop the world as it turns.”

Key Congressional staff from the House and Senate education committees and a representative from the U.S. Department of Education seconded Barnes’s comments and, without exception, said that reauthorizing NCLB was a priority for this year. They also agreed that a lot had been learned in the five years since NCLB was first signed into law and that while the core principles of the law are still good, some changes need to be made.

Carmel Martin, a member of the majority staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, spoke about Senator Edward Kennedy’s key reauthorization priorities. Specifically, she listed improving instructional teams (teachers, school leaders, etc.) in schools, making a stronger connection between parents and schools, providing greater support to help schools improve, and addressing the dropout crisis. “[The senator] talks most often about tackling the dropout crisis-something that the current law doesn’t address in an effective way,” she said. “That’s something that he feels very strongly that we need to tackle.”

Martin also discussed how Senator Kennedy would like to improve the NCLB accountability system, mentioning the need for incentives to encourage states to raise their standards, a more sophisticated way to measure progress such as growth models, and a move away from a “one-size-fits-all” accountability system.

Lindsay Hunsicker, a minority staffer on the Senate HELP Committee, echoed Martin’s comments about the accountability system and suggested the need for a “more nuanced approach” that takes into account lessons learned over the past few years. She also talked about the need to “pull up” low-income students and give them a sound education and math and reading skills that would help them compete in the global economy.

Alice Johnson Cain, majority staff for the House Education and Labor Committee, stressed that funding for the law would be a big issue for her boss, Representative George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. She said that he was looking for a significant increase in funding for NCLB programs and that the president’s budget will set the tone for the reauthorization. “We want the reform, but we want the resources,” she said.

James Bergeron, a minority staff member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said that the committee’s top Republican, Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), was focused on maintaining the law’s strong accountability system but also wanted to strengthen parental options and expand state and local flexibility. He also mentioned bolstering teacher quality, pay-for-performance for teachers, growth models, differentiated consequences for schools that just missed making Adequate Yearly Progress (versus consistently failing schools), and other changes McKeon would like to see made.

Doug Mesecar of the U.S. Department of Education spoke about the Bush administration’s priorities for reauthorizing the law. He focused on the need to improve the high school graduation rate, especially for low-income and minority students, whose graduation rate hovers around 50 percent. He said that such a low graduation rate for those students was a threat, not only to the students and their families, but also to the nation as a whole. He also discussed the changes that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings could make if Congress is unable to reauthorize the law this year. Specifically he mentioned the need for more reliable graduation rate calculations, better implementation and delivery of supplemental services and public school choice, and a more nuanced accountability system.

Another panel focused on the ways that states, local school boards, and local districts are implementing and reacting to the law and why Congress needs to reauthorize the law this year. Speakers included Deborah Jewell-Sherman, superintendent of the Richmond (VA) Public Schools; Gary Mabrey III, president and CEO of the Johnson City (TN) Chamber of Commerce; Natalie Elder, principal of Hardy Elementary School in Chattanooga, TN; Martha Reichrath, deputy superintendent of the Georgia Department of Education; and Eduardo Angulo, chairman of the Salem/Keizer (OR) Coalition for Equality.

Video from the event is available here

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