No Child Left Behind is under more attack than ever in its three-year history, with one filed lawsuit, one threatened lawsuit, districts rejecting Title I money, and several states voting not to follow its mandates. Yet for all this dissension about the law today, the next key date to determine No Child's future might not be until sometime in 2007.
Why's that? Well, for several reasons, but most importantly because that's when the comprehensive law comes up for reauthorization by Congress. It's impossible to predict the action now, especially when the composition of the House of Representatives and the Senate will change in the 2006 election before this debate even begins.
But for a bill that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support it seems that at the very least major changes could be coming when what was formerly known as ESEA is reauthorized in two years.
This isn't to diminish what is happening with the law right now. Utah's vote to reject some of the law's rules while trying to retain all of the state's Title I funds is a significant challenge that bears close scrutiny. Legal challenges from the NEA and a promised lawsuit from Connecticut will cut to the heart of much of the law's criticism, its funding. But trying to determine how these actions will be settled, or even when the cases might be resolved, remains a guessing game.
What seems most certain right now is that support for the bill, once overwhelming, has a shakier base than the California terrain during heavy rains.
Sure Democrats were the first to start complaining about NCLB, criticizing the funding for one of President Bush's landmark pieces of legislation. But when two states as heavily Republican as Texas and Utah mount very public challenges to the law, that can't bode well for reauthorization.
One other guidepost in this debate is the fate of Bush's plan after the 2004 election to extend the law's reach further into high schools. Insiders were calling that idea dead in the water a scant few weeks after it was proposed and even the Republican U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee, said it was "not likely" the expansion of NCLB would be discussed this year.
I'm hardly a political insider, but it seems to me the broad-based criticism could make it hard for NCLB to make it through 2007 without major changes. Democrats will push for more funding, some Republicans will look for changes that treat their state's schools better, and educators will try to alter or eliminate some of the law's basic tenets, such as the absolute need to test students each year even if the achievement gap the law is trying to uncover is plain to see.
This isn't to say the law doesn't have its supporters, because it does. Several education groups defend the law, Philadelphia CEO Paul Vallas praises it, and even critics such as Connecticut Commissioner of Education Betty J. Sternberg readily agree with some of the law's intentions. Even a few educators who oppose the law have mentioned doubts about some of the current challenges, murmuring that maybe Utah's state system of evaluation isn't good enough.
But Sternberg herself has mused that her waiver requests and the state's possible lawsuit may not dent the law until reauthorization happens in 2007. That's when the burden of today's criticism shifts from proving the law is illegal or ill-formed, to getting politicians to vote--again--to confirm the law has merit and is working. That might be the biggest shift of all.