Senators pledge bipartisan effort to revamp NCLB


Stakeholders support an NCLB overhaul to reflect realistic goals for schools.

Less than a day after President Obama asked Congress to overhaul No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in his Jan. 25 State of the Union address, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators said they would work together to revamp the nation’s education law—and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he hopes to have a bill on Obama’s desk by the end of the summer.

“Last night, President Obama clearly stated his desire to help education and his desire to fix No Child Left Behind,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters in a Jan. 26 phone conference. “No one likes how No Child Left Behind labels schools as failures even when they are making significant gains.”

Duncan was joined on the call by Harkin, who is chairman of the Senate education committee; Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., ranking minority member of the committee; Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

In overhauling NCLB, Duncan said the focus should be on rewarding schools that have made large improvements rather than penalizing them for still not reaching a higher standard.

Alexander, himself a former education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, said the problem lies with imposing federal regulations instead of allowing states to control their own education systems.

“Federal doesn’t equal national. For example, I believe in national standards on education, but I don’t believe Washington ought to set them,” said Alexander, adding that Duncan has worked hard to encourage states to create their own common standards.  “I don’t want us to become a national school board.”

Duncan said NCLB is far too rigid to allow states to enact their own policies.

“Washington shouldn’t provide one-size-fits-all mandates. We need a law that provides most schools with flexibility to decide how to improve and accelerate student achievement,” he said.

Without this flexibility, many school stakeholders say, too many schools are left facing sanctions for not reaching standards that they don’t have the resources to reach in the first place.

“I think what No Child Left Behind got wrong was [that] it was very tight on how you got there, but very loose on the goals,” said Duncan, who added that it should be the other way around.

Alexander agreed.

“We need to get away from Washington announcing whether schools are passing or failing,” he said.

While Duncan and the other participants on the conference call agreed that NCLB needs to be reworked, they don’t plan on starting from scratch.

“We’re replacing the elements of ESEA that were No Child Left Behind, but we’re not replacing the entire Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” said Harkin.

“I think we do need to identify the problems in No Child Left Behind and make as clear as possible what needs to be fixed before we come up with a solution,” said Enzi.

All spoke of a bipartisan effort to improve the education legislation.

“I’m pleased with how much collaborative effort has already gone into this and how much people seem to be together on this,” Enzi said.

Harkin agreed that this cannot be a politicized issue.

“We must protect the bipartisan move forward to set high expectations for all students and to expect continuous progress towards a common goal,” he said.

“Last year we held ten bipartisan hearings where we heard about many of the problems in the No Child Left Behind Act. This Congress, we must rewrite this law to create a better and more flexible education system that prepares our nation’s students for success in college, careers and the global economy,” said Harkin and Enzi in a joint statement after the State of the Union address. “We share the goal of legislation that gives our children and grandchildren the high-quality education they deserve, and we look forward to working together toward that goal.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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