The Blow-back against the main domestic reform of the Bush presidency - the No Child Left Behind Act - has reached gale-force strength. Democrats, Republicans, teacher unions, state legislators, and school officials are howling over the act's requirements.
Fortunately, the administration is proving flexible enough to adjust to reasonable criticisms. And so far it is not uprooting the most far-reaching education reform in a generation, although one of its most recent adjustments may be going too far.
That a federal law which tries to bring accountability and standards to a hugely diverse state and local system should experience enormous resistance is not surprising, especially in an election year. No major reform to come out of Washington is exempt from readjustment once it hits the implementation phase. Remember the ruckus over Title IX, which brought girls and women parity in sports and academics at schools and colleges? That went all the way to the Supreme Court, but wasn't the turmoil worth it?
Unlike Title IX, No Child Left Behind is not forcing change on anyone. Any state can opt out - if it's willing to forfeit federal education funding.
But the aim of this two-year-old law, born of strong bipartisanship, is no less sweeping. It, too, seeks to establish equal opportunity, this time between poor kids and well-off kids, between rural children and suburban ones. For that reason, it's reassuring to hear Education Secretary Rod Paige defend the law's core by saying the administration will fiercely resist pressure to amend the act itself.
Yet it's equally encouraging to witness his flexibility, as he adjusts regulations and rules in response to legitimate complaints. In December, for instance, the administration relaxed rules governing the testing of special-education students. Last month, it did the same for students who speak limited English. The adjustments prevent schools from being labeled as "failing" if these kids in special circumstances aren't making the same progress as other children.
This week, the administration again recalibrated, giving teachers of core subjects in rural districts three more years to meet the standard of "highly qualified" - holding at least a bachelor's degree, having state certification, or demonstrating competence in their subject area. This allows rural teachers, who often have to teach multiple core subjects, more time to become qualified in their areas.
But here's why this adjustment, which also applies to newly hired teachers, may go too far. Teacher turnover generally is high. Teachers may simply use the three-year window to go from school to school, never having to meet the standard.
This particular provision bears watching, and if it proves ill-advised, may have to be changed again. But that's the way it is with major reform. After all, nearly 40 years later, we're still making changes to Medicare.