Bush, lawmakers meet over NCLB

President Bush pushed for renewal of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law in a private meeting with congressional leaders on Jan. 8 but was noncommittal on their request for more money to help schools meet the law’s requirements.

The controversial law has had an impact on many aspects of education, including education technology, and has increased pressure on school systems to spend money on computerized student information and assessment systems.

“In our discussions today, we’ve all agreed to work together to address some of the major concerns that some people have on this piece of legislation, without weakening the essence of the bill,” Bush said following the White House meeting with Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

NCLB seeks to ensure that all children can read and do math at grade level by 2014, which has placed many new demands on schools. The law calls on schools to step up testing, boost teacher quality, and pay more attention to the achievements of minority children.

Schools that get federal aid but do not make enough progress must provide tutoring, offer public school choice to students, or initiate other reforms, such as overhauling their staffs. First Lady Laura Bush, a former teacher and school librarian, and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings attended the Jan. 8 meeting, a day the Bush administration chose to mark NCLB’s fifth anniversary.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. who chair committees overseeing education, said they urged the president to propose funding increases for NCLB. Bush made no commitments, according to a congressional aide who was briefed on the discussions.

Democrats, who won control of Congress in November, say the administration and Republican lawmakers have underfunded the law by about $50 billion, compared with what originally was called for. Republicans say it is common practice for legislation to be funded at less than the full amount.

Partisan sniping over the law has been common in recent years, but the lawmakers attending the Jan. 8 meeting struck a bipartisan note and pledged to work together to get the law renewed for five more years. The united front is part of a strategy to fend off critics who want to see the law scrapped or drastically changed.

Spellings listed a few areas of concern that came up during the Jan. 8 meeting. They included how to test special education and limited-English speaking students, a desire to give schools credit for progress even when they fall short of annual targets, and ways to get more students access to free, high-quality tutoring.

Spellings also indicated she was willing to consider providing financial incentives to states that want to align their standards with more rigorous ones in place elsewhere. The administration, and Republicans in general, have resisted anything that resembles national standards dictating what students across the country should know and learn.

“I think anytime there’s a carrot approach, as opposed to a stick for continuing to raise the bar, I think that will be well received,” Spellings said.

NCLB has pushed some states to weaken their standards to avoid consequences that arise when schools miss annual targets.

Kennedy and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., have introduced legislation addressing the issue. The National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union, has endorsed Dodd’s bill calling for voluntary national standards.

In an interview with the Associated Press (AP) before the Jan. 8 meeting, Spellings said there were a few “bright-line principles” the administration would not agree to alter under a rewrite of the law. Among them is the basic requirement that all students are proficient in reading and math by 2014–a goal many observers call unrealistic.

Spellings also said the administration was open to debating how progress should be measured. Critics, including the teachers’ unions, have said the current law does not give enough credit to schools that make significant strides in student achievement but fall short of reaching an annual target.

In the AP interview, Spellings declined to preview the amount Bush would seek when he releases his annual budget in February. She did indicate an interest in getting more money to teachers who work in schools that have difficulty attracting people. Bush sought $500 million from Congress for that purpose last year and got about $100 million. “Our best teachers, or our most experienced teachers, are in places with our least challenged learners,” Spellings said.

She also reaffirmed the administration’s view that the law, which focuses on early and middle grades, should be expanded in high schools.

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