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No Time for a Quickie: Rushing to Reauthorize NCLB Will Only Make Things Worse

Let’s just say it out loud: What a rough year. Many state and local budgets are a mess. Stimulus fund are rolling out slowly.

Swine flu is back. Every year, it seems, lawmakers call on the schools to take the lead on more and more fronts: Go “green.” Prevent cyber-bullying. Expand preschool. Stop kids from “sexting.” Teach parents to parent.

Meanwhile, the president’s support for education is already under attack. His back-to-school speech erupted into controversy. His safe schools czar, Kevin Jennings, is coming under intense criticism for past writings. His reform ideas are disappointing some supporters who don’t like his continued support for NCLB. Over the president’s objections, the Senate Finance Committee voted to restore federal funding for abstinence-only sex ed.

Reality is, the situation isn’t getting better anytime soon. Next year’s budgets will be worse than this year’s in many parts of the country. States are promising the moon to try and win the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund. (Eight have already changed their charter laws.) However, only a few will win.

Most concerning, the Obama administration may talk Congress into a quickie reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal education law that everyone loves to hate.

After months of focusing on the Race to the Top initiative, which is finally starting to take shape, the Obama administration suddenly turned its attention toward NCLB in late September. All of a sudden Arne Duncan et al. were suggesting that the massive law could be rewritten during 2010.

No one argues that NCLB doesn’t need fixing. The annual ratings are arbitrary and narrow. The transfer and tutoring mandates are expensive and often unworkable. The remedies for long-failing schools are weak to the point of being nonexistent. The highly qualified teacher requirement turned into a bureaucratic exercise.

Many education groups are anxious to get the law fixed. Nearly 200 advocates showed up at the first meeting held at the Department of Ed to announce plans for reauthorization. One of them, Reginald Felton, of the National School Boards Association, urged the Duncan team to act quickly because the current law is “costly and severe.”

But the costs of NCLB are small compared to the costs that will come from having to comply with a new version of the law. And the reauthorization shouldn’t be rushed to suit a timetable that suits the White House or anyone else. The reforms in Race to the Top—performance pay, more charters—haven’t had a chance to be implemented or evaluated. Before we turn them into law we should find out if they’ll work nationally.

The state-led “common standards” effort—perhaps the most exciting thing going on in school reform right now—also needs more consideration before it’s written into federal law. (So do the revamped assessments that would come along behind them.) Ditto for experimental ideas like “thin” labor contracts, unionized charter schools, and community schools.

Not everyone is pushing for a quick reauthorization. “We need at least 18 months of action to reshape the landscape and debate before reauthorization,” wrote former superintendent and Gates Foundation officer Tom Vander Ark. “Going faster will make health care look fun.”

Truth is, another couple of years of NCLB aren’t going to hurt anyone. The law isn’t closing schools or costing teachers their jobs. The 2014 deadline for students to be 100 percent proficient isn’t a serious issue. (Remember Goals 2000?)

Most of all, Congress isn’t ready. There’s a new chairman on the Senate education committee, and a relatively new ranking member on the House education committee. As of October, health care reform—which involves many of the same lawmakers—doesn’t appear to be anywhere near completion. There’s no consensus on NCLB, even among Democrats. There’s no money (one of the main reasons to do a reauthorization). Good things rarely happen toward the end of a two-year Congress, just before midterm elections.

Better to wait until 2011 to focus on NCLB. There’ll be more momentum (and the possibility of more money). We’ll know more. The political and legislative situation will be clearer.        

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