Support turns to opposition on No Child Left Behind reform

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2012 - 6:38 AM

WASHINGTON - Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., still wants to see that no child is left behind in school. But times have changed for Kline and for the education reform movement that has listed hundreds of Minnesota schools as failing.

A year ago, the Second District congressman figured to be a catalyst guiding the overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal mandate to increase standards and accountability in public education.

"No Child Left Behind, left as it is, is not working," said Kline, the dean of Minnesota's four Republicans in the U.S. House. "Everybody wants to change the law."

Broad support has given way to broad opposition. Minnesota is among a first wave of states seeking waivers to escape the law's key demands.

President Obama did not mention the decade-old law in his State of the Union speech when discussing his administration's education goals.

The bills Kline introduced in January would cut or consolidate dozens of education programs, give districts greater flexibility in how they use federal funds and drop federal requirements for teacher qualifications. He's eyeing change before 2014, the year the No Child Left Behind Act will require every public school student in the country to pass reading and math tests.

Last week a coalition of 38 business and civil rights organizations, unions and reform groups banded together to oppose Kline's latest efforts to revamp the law. The group said the proposed changes would shortchange minorities, low-income students, English-language learners and students with disabilities. Another group -- the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Coalition -- has also attacked Kline's legislation, saying it would devalue science education.

One thing Kline and his critics agree on: The law that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support during the George W. Bush presidency has fallen short of its goal to improve education for all children.

The Senate education committee, led by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, produced a bipartisan bill last fall and has urged Kline's committee to do the same. The Senate bill prescribes changes similar to those backed by Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who will grant waivers to states seeking relief from the school reform law. The states must commit to reforms that include restructuring low-performing schools and adopting evaluation standards for teachers and principals. Minnesota should learn by mid-month if it has been granted one.

But four years after the law was to be renewed, even Kline doubts much will happen in 2012, a year expected to be plagued by partisan gridlock in a Congress readying for re-election.

"We're going to try to get this done in Congress," he said.

There is little chance that will happen this year, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

"The presidential politics are very much the predominant factor," said Domenech, a supporter of Kline's bills. "Under normal circumstances, it would not be a far reach for the House and Senate to come together. But not this year."

Waiting on a waiver

State leaders are confident the U.S. Department of Education will grant Minnesota a waiver, said Charlene Briner, chief of staff for state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

The waiver could lift some penalties for hundreds of schools labeled as failing under No Child Left Behind.

Last fall, the state Department of Education reported that almost half of Minnesota's schools failed to meet the law's standards. The law has forced schools and districts that repeatedly fall short to shuffle staff, provide free after-school tutoring and bus students to better-performing schools. Cassellius has said the penalties are costly, ineffective and proof that the state needs a waiver.

Under Minnesota's proposed system the state would focus resources on the bottom 15 to 20 percent of schools. All schools would have to show improved individual student growth, higher graduation rates and a shrinking achievement gap between white and nonwhite students. Schools also would still be judged on student math and reading scores.

Kline has condemned the waiver program since Obama and Duncan announced it last year.

Opposing Kline's bills are the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 50CAN, the 50-state Campaign for Achievement Now -- the model for Minnesota-based school reform group MinnCAN.

"The students we represent cannot withstand the risk of Congress allowing states to return to old habits -- aiming low and abandoning children deemed too difficult or inconsequential to educate," their Jan. 24 letter read, in part.

In a statement, Kline rebuffed the charge.

"I am disappointed critics have chosen to disregard this responsible proposal and vilify the motives of state and local leaders -- leaders who have been clamoring for exactly the kind of flexibility and opportunity provided in the Student Success Act," he responded in a statement.

The STEM coalition -- including the National Association of Manufacturers, Microsoft Corp. and National Science Teachers Association -- is upset that Kline's legislation would drop current federal science testing requirements and dismantle a $150 million federal math and science education program. Kline's proposal "sends a powerful, negative and unambiguous signal to U.S. schools and the public that science ... is no longer a national priority," read a portion of the group's letter.

Kline defended the proposed cuts, citing a study by the Government Accountability Office that found significant overlap and poor oversight in federal math and science programs.

"In recent years, the federal government has dedicated significant resources to developing STEM programs, yet taxpayers have seen little evidence that these programs are actually working," he said in a statement.

Cassellius, through a spokesman, declined comment on Kline's bills.

Like Kline, Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher supports local, rather than federal, reform and acknowledges that No Child Left Behind is long overdue for an overhaul, but he noted the mounting opposition to the proposed legislation.

"There are obviously some serious questions being raised about this bill," Dooher said.

Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @StribMitchell

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