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What's Next for NCLB?

If Washington worked the way it was supposed to, No Child Left Behind would be on the verge of some major reforms right about now. The law, enacted in 2002, was given an official life span of five years before it was supposed to be reconsidered, and the 110th Congress has been sworn in.

“With the Democrats having just recaptured both chambers of Congress after a season of nasty and partisan campaigns, the media is primed for happy stories of postelection comity,” writes Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute in a recent issue of Teachers College Record. “NCLB will likely serve as exhibit A, just as it did when it first passed with bipartisan support in 2001.”

And yet, educators anxious for quick, big changes to NCLB shouldn’t get their hopes up, according to a close reading of the situation. There are a number of reasons that changes to NCLB might be slow to arrive, and they will be minor when they do.

Congress frequently ignores its own reauthorization timetables. Scheduled for reauthorization in 2007, NCLB could wait a year or even two years longer. After all, the 1994 version of the law Improving America’s Schools wasn’t revamped for seven years (although it was adjusted several times through the appropriations process).

There are no major changes to the congressional education committees beyond the switch to Democratic control, and the members taking over the committees—Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Congressman George Miller (D-CA)—staunchly defend the law.

With whatever attention it has to spend outside of worrying about Iraq and other hot spots, the Democratic majority says it is going to focus first on other issues: health insurance, prescription drug prices, and the minimum wage. Its only major education push is college affordability, although there may be some attention paid to investigating the Reading First scandal.

Substantively, there’s little agreement about what should be done to NCLB, anyway. Some critics on the left and many educators want its school ratings system (adequate yearly progress, or AYP) diluted or dismantled, especially when it comes to bilingual and special ed students. Others in the center and on the right want its sanctions strengthened, or its teacher quality provisions fully implemented, or a voucher demonstration program, or even national standards. Opening up NCLB to changes doesn’t necessarily mean it gets improved.

In fact, some observers think that it won’t be until 2009, with a new Congress and a new president in office, before NCLB is revamped. That’s because there will be little time and interest in revamping NCLB in the year before a presidential election.

And it could take a little while for the new Democratic majority to staff up and hold hearings, and all that is needed for a full reauthorization.

Of course, the U.S. Department of Education may continue to provide waivers and create pilot programs as it has over the past two years on AYP, Supplemental Educational Services, and choice. While discretionary spending will be tight given other priorities, lawmakers can modify NCLB via the annual spending bills that must go through Congress.In the meantime, there will still be some action on the education front.

In the short term, the Aspen Institute’s Commission on NCLB is set to release its recommendations this month. Like the 9/11 Commission, the Aspen Commission is staying in place after the report is written in order to influence Congress.

And, of course, things may perk up in the coming months regarding the Senate Education Committee, given that Democratic star Barack Obama (D-IL) is joining Hillary Clinton (D-NY) there. If either or both run for president, education will get a fair amount of their time and attention.

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