September 1, 2007

Democrats Try to Soften Bush’s Education Law

As Congress returns next week, leading Democrats are struggling for the formula that can attract bipartisan support to extend the life of President Bush’s education law, No Child Left Behind. In doing so, they are proposing to ease the pressure on suburban schools.

A draft proposal being floated by Representative George Miller, chairman of the House education committee, would soften many of the law’s accountability provisions while maintaining its overall strategic goal: to bring every student to proficiency by 2014 by requiring states to administer standardized tests and to punish schools where scores do not rise.

The changes, circulated this week by Mr. Miller, a California Democrat, and the committee’s ranking Republican, address the most persistent complaints against the law, by suburban districts, by middle-class parents, by states with large immigrant populations and by teachers unions who are crucial to Democrats’ 2008 electoral fortunes.

For the suburbs, for example, Mr. Miller’s draft would draw a distinction between schools failing across the board and those where only some student groups failed to meet annual testing goals. It would give a nod to teachers’ concerns by allowing states to consider not just annual math and reading scores in deciding whether a school passes muster but other measures, including tests in history, science and civics; graduation rates; and Advanced Placement tests.

For states with many immigrants, it would allow students not fluent in English to be tested in their native language for five years.

But in a sign of the difficult political calculus in extending a measure that has opponents on both the right and the left, for every supporter of the proposed changes there has emerged an opponent. .

Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust, a rights group, said the authors were succumbing to pressure from “well-financed and ill-informed defenders of the status quo.”

“The heart of the law has been hollowed out,” said Ms. Wilkins, who helped draft the original in 2001.

Michael J. Petrilli, a former Department of Education official who is a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, has nicknamed the education committee’s draft “The Suburban Schools Relief Act of 2007” because he says it is intended to appease the middle class.

Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for the education secretary, Margaret Spellings, said, “We have serious concerns that the draft creates loopholes in accountability measures, provides fewer options for parents, increases complexity and provides less transparency.”

“We will not support measures that water down the accountability provisions,” Ms. Yudof added.

On the other hand, Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “This draft encourages a serious discussion of reauthorization.”

The National Education Association, the other national teachers union, which has been implacably critical of the law, said it would withhold comment on the draft until it finished polling its local delegates.

The House education committee posted the proposals on its Web site this week. Among the most important changes in the draft are those to the law’s accountability system, in which states judge whether schools have made “adequate yearly progress” and can avoid sanctions.

The draft would allow states to look beyond annual test scores and says bluntly that broader criteria “may increase the number of schools that make adequate yearly progress.”

Another change would distinguish schools where only one or two student groups fail to meet annualtesting goals from those where three or more groups fall short. The latter would face more rigorous sanctions; students at the former would no longer be eligible to transfer to higher-performing schools.

That change would be popular in many suburbs, where thousands of schools with sterling local reputations have faced federal sanctions because of one or two low-performing groups, but it has already drawn opposition from the tutoring industry and the Bush administration.

The draft bill would loosen the rules governing the testing of students with limited English, which have provoked disputes between federal officials and educators in some states, by allowing states to test students in their native language for five years, instead of the law’s three years.

“You can see where they’ve tried to satisfy education groups like the teachers unions and the school boards,” said Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators.

Both Mr. Miller and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate education committee, have promised to draw up bills in September to rework the law. President Bush has repeatedly described the law as a major reform of American education. It passed in 2001 with overwhelming bipartisan support, but last November, dozens of Democrats who campaigned on promises to change the law were elected, and this year, there have already been significant Republican defections.

A bill allowing states to opt out of testing requirements without losing federal money, introduced this year by Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan, has attracted 50 conservative Republican co-sponsors, including the minority whip, Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri.

Several groups have complained about the complexity of the draft proposals. The measures of schools’ academic progress, for instance, would be combined with the math and reading scores under a formula that has left even Department of Education officials puzzled.