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Congress and Education Policy: ESEA at 40

March 15, 2005 // 2:00pm4:00pm

"The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) stands as the major domestic accomplishment of President George W. Bush's first term," said Representative Mike Castle (R-Del.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Education Reform of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Castle said there's no turning back from this landmark legislation that requires states to set education standards, tests students in grades 3 through 8 to determine whether they are learning, and withholds federal funds from schools that do not meet the standards. Castle said that while there may be minor modifications in the act when it is reauthorized by Congress in two years, it is unlikely at present that Congress will go along with President Bush's proposal to extend the act's coverage to high school students since the money is unavailable for it, and members want to have a better sense of the current act's consequences before expanding on it. Castle added that it was a good idea to expect the same accountability from high schools, but that members are not willing to abolish other education programs such as vocational education to fund such an expansion.

Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige agreed with Castle that the President's efforts to forge a bipartisan consensus in Congress on the legislation, even before he was elected, was the key to its successful enactment. The real test comes now in the willingness of states to comply with the law. "We have had all kinds of good ideas in previous elementary and secondary education laws, but they didn't get done because there was not rigorous enforcement." Paige said that as Secretary of Education he was determined to avoid the same fate and therefore insisted on state compliance from the beginning rather than start off with all kinds of waivers and exemptions. "We were going to enforce the law," even though it meant a lot of unhappy school administrators when it became effective on the opening day of the 2003 school year. In response to criticisms that the new law forces schools to "teach for testing" rather than for learning, Paige noted that unlike the SAT test, the No Child Left Behind Act gives states the authority to set the standards for learning and then test based on what they think the children should have learned at each grade level. "The whole purpose of No Child Left Behind is to determine whether students have learned what we expect of them at each grade level."

University of Georgia education professor Elizabeth DeBray attributed Bush's success in getting the bill passed, where Clinton had failed, to a combination of "unified party government" with a Republican controlled Congress, even though many conservatives were not otherwise inclined to support such an approach, and Bush's reaching out to Democrats who generally favor improving educational standards. DeBray noted that many of the elements of No Child Left Behind were part of the Clinton education package, and Congress helped to shape the final package with its own ideas as well. DeBray questioned whether Bush will retain the same support from members of this own party when renewing the act since it really does cut against their ideological concerns about government intrusions into state and local responsibilities.

Representative John Brademas, who spent 22 years in Congress from 1959 to 1981, was a key player on the Education Committee when the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law by President Johnson in 1965. Brademas noted that Johnson succeeded where previous presidents had failed because he had a variety of factors working for him that they didn't. "The principal barriers prior to 1965 were race, religion, and Republicans," said Brademas. The 1964 Civil Rights Act took race out of the education debate since it already prohibited racial discrimination in the use of federal funds. Johnson and his allies on Capitol Hill like Brademas, were able to satisfy the religious objections by gearing the aid to students from economically disadvantaged families rather than schools (the "child benefit" theory). The 1964 elections took Republicans out of the picture as Democrats held a 295 to 140-seat edge in the House in 1965. The ESEA bill was sent to the Hill on January 12 and by April 11 it was signed into law-—a remarkable legislative accomplishment in a very short time frame for such a landmark piece of legislation that for the first time funneled federal assistance to elementary and secondary education. Johnson's skills as a legislative strategist paid big dividends on this issue, said Brademas. It was a centerpiece of his anti-poverty war.

 

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