The long-awaited overhaul of the 9-year-old No Child Left Behind law has begun in the House with the first in a series of targeted bills, but a bipartisan, comprehensive reform of the nation's most important education law still appears far from the finish line.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, said there's no chance of meeting President Barack Obama's August deadline.
"I've been very, persistently clear that we cannot get this done by summer," Kline said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It is just not going to happen."
Republicans have been divided by new lawmakers who tend to oppose any federal role in education and fiscal conservatives who want greater efficiency but are open to giving Washington some input. On the other side, some Democrats favor incentives like merit pay for teachers while others are advocating for the more traditional education establishment.
"There are some areas of focus that I think you can get some consensus around," said Sandy Kress, who served as an education adviser to President George W. Bush in the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. For example, he said, there's agreement on the need to better prepare high school students for college and careers, create measures that improve teacher development and effectives, and prune back federal intrusions into the classroom.
"But after that, the differences come out," Kress said.
Republicans and Democrats agree the law is broken. The Bush-era legislation has accountability provisions in which even schools that are making improvements can be labeled as failures and has had a discouraging effect on the adoption of higher standards. The law sets a goal of having 100 percent of students proficient in math and reading by 2014, but states set what is considered proficient and how much schools must improve each year. Many left the biggest leaps for the final years, anticipating the law would be changed.
Since it has not, the number of schools not meeting annual growth benchmarks is likely to increase. Failing to meet the targets for several consecutive years leads to federal interventions that can result in staff replacement and school restructuring.
"It's going to be more and more difficult for schools to make the targets," said Diane Rentner, director of national programs for the Center on Education Policy.
Two approaches have emerged to restructuring the law. The House plans to introduce several targeted fixes through multiple bills, starting with a proposal to eliminate 43 federal K-12 education programs. The Senate still aims for a more comprehensive legislation.
"We will hopefully have a bill that may not be what everybody wants, but I hope it will be broadly supported," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Harkin said he is hopeful the bill will be before the committee before the July recess and will include systems for teacher and principal evaluations; metrics for success that include student growth and school gains; and some federal accountability and intervention in the bottom 5 percent of schools, as well as those with significant achievement gaps.
Potentially, a Senate bill could be aligned with the House proposals in a conference committee, but analysts say that would be difficult to pull off. House Republicans, wary of any broad-reaching federal legislation, may balk at a comprehensive education bill.
"The politics of education are in a place where the stars are not fully aligned yet," said Vic Klatt, a former GOP staff director for the House Education Committee.
Passing a series of small, targeted bills isn't necessarily easier, either.
"We're fully prepared to proceed in that fashion; it just makes it a little more difficult because you don't have all the pieces on the table at the same time," said Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the Education Committee.
Kline said he plans to introduce a second bill soon that would give school districts more flexibility in how they spend federal dollars. A third bill could be introduced before the August break, and at least one more, addressing how schools should be held accountable, would follow.
"I think it makes it easier for everybody to understand," Hunter said of the piecemeal approach, whereas for big bills, "I think people have an aversion to them now."
Neither of the first two bills addresses Education Secretary Arne Duncan's concern that 82 percent of schools could be labeled as failures next year under No Child Left Behind. Kline said the accountability question is a difficult one.
"This is going to be a challenging prospect for us, no question about it," Kline said. "Schools are going to be accountable for what? And to whom? That's an ongoing question."
Many education experts have questioned Duncan's prediction. A study by the Center on Education Policy in April found that 38 percent of schools failed to meet adequate yearly progress in 2010, meaning the number failing would have to more than double.
Duncan has the authority to grant waivers to meeting the law's requirements. In 2009, he granted more than 300, significantly higher than the number granted a year before by his predecessor. The department says the number was higher in part because officials invited states to submit several waivers, including those related to stimulus funding.
Kress said that not passing a reauthorization isn't as serious as the administration has suggested and that there are many policy fixes that can be done under the current law. The political consequences for not passing a reform might not be steep for either party, he said.
"I think it's inconsequential," Kress said. "The issues that separate them are so great. To come to an agreement on a modest bill that is restrained and modest, I don't think anybody runs on that."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)