NCLB watch: Will the center rise again?

Once upon a time, Rick Hess and I argued that a Washington Consensus birthed the No Child Left Behind Act, and that this centrist coalition remained firmly entrenched, at least at the elite level of policymaking. Events of recent months have raised questions about this grand theory of ours, with key conservatives peeling off the NCLB bandwagon on federalist grounds, and Democratic presidential aspirants pummeling the law to appeal to their teacher union base (watch this discouraging clip from Monday night's CNN/YouTube debate, for example).

But for supporters of the law, all hope is not lost. A pair of recent proposals call for mending, not ending, the Act.

The first--which might be considered the center-right proposal--comes from Senators Richard Burr and Judd Gregg and, implicitly, the Bush Administration. (Secretary Spellings praised the package and surely had a role in its development. Burr is staffed by Celia Sims, who served the Bushies in the first term at the U.S. Department of Education; Spellings's counselor is now Townsend McNitt, formerly Gregg's chief aide.)

Hewing closely as it does to the Administration's NCLB proposal (which we earlier called a "pretty decent repair attempt"), the bill includes several worthy reform ideas. It allows "differentiated consequences," which means it reserves the toughest sanctions for the worst schools. It expands eligibility for growth models to all 50 states. It brings some rationality to the law's accountability measures for English language learners and students with disabilities. It offers free tutoring ("supplemental services") to students a year earlier than the current law does, and makes it harder for districts to divert tutoring money to other uses. And, most imaginatively, it creates a new "money follows the child" program so that federal Title I dollars can flow to the public school of a family's choosing.

Still, the proposal clings to plenty of dumb ideas too, like the "100% of students proficient by 2014" requirement (a.k.a. the "lower standards initiative"), the highly qualified teachers mandate (a.k.a. the "useless paperwork and teacher infuriation act"), and almost all of the current law's myriad wasteful pet programs (though the senators do, courageously, propose scrapping Senator Ted Kennedy's "historic whaling" program, lest you thought these fiscal conservatives were going soft). And, as far as we can tell, it drops the Administration's boldest proposal: offering federal dollars to urban communities that want to establish private school voucher programs.

The second reauthorization bill--which might be considered the centrist proposal--comes from Senators Joe Lieberman, Mary Landrieu, and Norm Coleman and, implicitly, the Aspen NCLB Commission. (Commission chairman and former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes praised the package, which incorporates plenty of his panel's ideas, including some of the dopey ones we explained would lead to a "national education ministry.")

However, the Lieberman bill vastly improves upon the NCLB Commission's work in important ways. For example, while it embraces its recommendation to require states to measure teachers' impact on student learning--a good idea in principle but an impossibly complex one for Uncle Sam to handle well--it offers an exemption from all "highly qualified teachers" mandates for schools that make adequate yearly progress.* In other words, make AYP, skip HQT. It adopts other versions of "earned autonomy" too, such as granting schools more flexibility over funding, and making life easier for charter schools. Hooray!

On the flip side of flexibility, it offers improvements to accountability by embracing voluntary national standards and tests. The National Assessment Governing Board would be expanded and charged with developing a student-level test that states could choose to use in lieu of their own NCLB assessments--taking Senator Dodd's national standards proposal one step further. Hooray!

Perhaps just as significantly, Lieberman et alia support many of the same changes that Burr and company forwarded: differentiated accountability, growth models, small tweaks to supplemental services, solutions for measuring progress of English language learners and students with disabilities, and on and on.

So the Washington Consensus appears to be alive and well, at least among the Senate education committee, at least from the center to the center-right. The next move belongs to Kennedy and Representative George Miller, chairmen of their respective education committees. If they release center-left (rather than hard-left) proposals, a bipartisan compromise might not be far away.

Still, that doesn't mean that the odds of reauthorizing NCLB this year are high. Timing is a problem--the August recess is looming. But more important, organized and vocal opponents on the right and left are prepared to take their arguments to rank and file members of Congress. Be prepared for a replay of the immigration debate, wherein a weakened President Bush teams up with key allies in both parties, only to be defeated by grass roots opposition. Just as the president's guest worker program will have to wait for 2009 to be reconsidered, so too, most likely, will NCLB.

*Michael J. Petrilli inaccurately characterized the reauthorization bill put forward by Senators Lieberman, Landrieu, and Coleman. It does not, alas, allow schools that make Adequate Yearly Progress to escape from the law's Highly Qualified Teachers (HQT) mandate. It does, however, allow entire states to opt out of the HQT requirements if they implement a peer-reviewed system to evaluate teacher and principal effectiveness. We regret the mistake-and regret even more that the bill excludes the more powerful "make AYP, avoid HQT" idea.

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