Can Anyone Change No Child Left Behind?

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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has urged Congress to revise the No Child Left Behind Act, which was passed in 2001

The Obama Administration is doubling down on its push to overhaul the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Last Wednesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified before Congress and aggressively urged action to revise the landmark and contentious education law that was passed in 2001. The President began this week with a speech at a northern Virginia middle school urging Congress to act and then spent part of Tuesday cutting several radio interviews prodding Capitol Hill even more.

This isn't the first time the Administration has implored Congress to change this law: it's been a constant drumbeat since 2009 (the law was due to be "reauthorized," Washingtonspeak for tuned up, in 2007 but Congress couldn't agree on how to do it) and even during the 2008 campaign. Now, frustrated with the lack of action, Obama and Duncan are trying a new approach: scaring Congress into acting. Both Obama and Duncan are highlighting Department of Education estimates that more than 80% of schools will not meet performance targets this year if the law isn't changed. One wag dubbed the new strategy a "fail wail."

Congress didn't seem to buy the new 80% figure, or at least didn't care. And it's not a very credible number to begin with. There are so many escape clauses in the law that it's almost impossible to estimate what school performance will look like from one year to the next, and schools have to miss the targets for multiple years before there are any consequences anyway. But Obama doesn't have a lot of cards left to play and he does have a basic point worth heeding: the No Child law was never intended to run for nine years without some changes, and it's starting to show its age. Rules about school accountability, teacher accountability and how federal funds can be spent all need an update to reflect how much has changed since 2001.

But the Administration is clearly thinking about more than just the policy. Part of the push for revamping No Child Left Behind is political. The Race to the Top competition is receding from public view. The dollars from the 2009 economic-stimulus bill are mostly spent. Congress and the Administration are at loggerheads over proposals to better regulate for-profit colleges. And Congress gridlocked on the federal budget. So, bluntly, the Obama Administration wants and needs an education win from overhauling No Child Left Behind. Republicans understand those politics and are seeing what they can extract from the Administration in exchange for passing a bill. This dynamic worries some observers. One civil rights lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid about the Administration, told me, "They want a notch in their belts more than good policy" at this point.

That concern is echoed by many supporters of the law's emphasis on accountability for traditionally underserved students — especially minority and low-income students — and by some Democratic moderates on Capitol Hill. They worry that the Administration will acquiesce to a gutting of the law's accountability rules — especially for suburban schools where the law's focus on underserved students has caused the most discomfort — as part of a deal with congressional Republicans who dislike the federal intrusion the law represents. Such a deal would also please the powerful National Education Association, which loathes the law's emphasis on accountability.

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