January 29, 2010 -- In his State of the Union address, President Obama held out the hope of overhauling the main law outlining the federal role in public schools, a sprawling 45-year-old statute that dates to the Johnson administration.
But experts say it would be a heavy lift for the administration to get the job done this year because the law has produced so much discord, there is so little time and there are so many competing priorities.
In 2001, when Congress completed the law’s most recent rewrite, the effort took a full year, and the bipartisan consensus that made that possible has long since shattered. Today there is wide agreement that the law needs an overhaul, but not on how to fix its flaws.
Since it was recast into its current form by the second Bush administration — and renamed No Child Left Behind — it has generated frequent, divisive debate, partly because it requires schools to administer far more standardized tests and because it labels schools that fail to make progress fast enough each year as “needing improvement.” That category draws penalties and has grown to include more than 30,000 schools.
Several states sued the Bush administration over the law in the last decade, unsuccessfully. Connecticut challenged its financing provisions, saying it imposed costly demands without providing adequate financing. Arizona fought rules on the testing of immigrant students.
“Its hard to see how they can get” a rewrite done, said Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, which includes about 80 groups representing teachers, superintendents, principals, school boards and others. “If there’s some bipartisan agreement about what the administration proposes, and the Republicans say, ‘We want to work together,’ then maybe. But I think its going to be tough.”
During the 2008 campaign and his first year in office, President Obama’s posture was popular with almost everyone: the law embodies worthwhile goals like narrowing the achievement gap between minority and white students, he said, but includes flawed provisions that need fixing. Once any rewrite begins in earnest, however, Mr. Obama will need to support specific changes that will be unpopular with at least some groups.
“Few subjects divide educators more intensely,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a speech about the law in September.
In that speech, Mr. Duncan leveled some of his own criticisms of the law, including that it labeled schools as failures even when they were making real progress, and that it often inadvertently provided incentives for states to lower academic standards to avoid sanctions. He said he was eager to begin a rewrite.
“This work is as urgent as it is important.” Mr. Duncan said.
Mr. Obama communicated a lower sense of urgency on Wednesday, perhaps because the administration’s legislative agenda for the year is already packed.
“I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay,” the president said.
While he also urged Congress not to abandon the health care overhaul, on the education law, he said only, “When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress.”
Mr. Duncan said in an interview on Thursday that key lawmakers “share our sense of urgency” about the need for an immediate rewrite, and were already pitching in.
Last week Mr. Duncan and more than a dozen other administration officials met with the Democratic chairmen and ranking Republican members of the education committees in both houses of Congress to discuss the rewrite of the law, first drafted in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“We are blue-skying this thing, taking a big-picture approach, to try to coalesce the themes that are most important,” Mr. Duncan said. “It’s early, a million things could go wrong, but I’m hopeful.”
Changes in the Congressional leadership could complicate the effort. The death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who worked closely with President George W. Bush in 2001, removed a passionate believer in the law.
Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who replaced Mr. Kennedy as chairman of the Senate education committee, has other priorities. He wants to continue the law’s focus on closing achievement gaps, but to include an emphasis on school nutrition and physical fitness programs.
“We also need to take a new approach to things that are not working, like using the same solutions for all school problems,” Mr. Harkin said.
Some Republicans, including Representative John Kline, the Minnesotan who is the ranking minority member of the House education committee, say they want changes to the law, but are in no hurry.
“He’s not interested in an arbitrary deadline,” said Alexa Marrero, Mr. Kline’s spokeswoman. “It’s a lot more important on something like this to get it right than to just get it done.”
Chester E. Finn, Jr., an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, wrote in a blog post on Thursday: “One can only wish them well, but reworking this monstrously complex statute is apt to prove almost as challenging as health care.”
“The odds of getting a full-dress reauthorization done between now and August are very, very slender,” Mr. Finn said in an interview.