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'No Child Left Behind' losing steam

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"Year after year, the president sends us a budget that comes nowhere close to funding No Child Left Behind at an adequate level," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, who chairs the education subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, at a hearing on NCLB funding last week. The president's budget for fiscal year '08 underfunds the law by $14.8 billion, he adds. "The numbers have gotten almost laughable."

Democrats also aim to revise aspects of how the law is implemented, including revising strategies for turning around low-performing schools. Of some 90,000 public schools, about 9,000 have been targeted by NCLB as needing improvement. "We want to make turning around our most struggling schools a priority in this reauthorization," says Roberto Rodriguez, senior education adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. That panel is considering shifting to alternative measures of "adequate yearly progress," including models that account for the improvement of individual students over a school year, rather than whether they meet target proficiency standards.

But Democrats say they are still committed to a key assumption of the NCLB law: that the federal government should be involved in leveraging higher achievement in local schools. That is not the case among Republicans.

On the House side, 52 Republicans, including minority whip Roy Blunt, are cosponsoring the A-Plus Act, introduced by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R) of Michigan. Thirty-three Republicans voted against the NCLB bill, most of whom are cosponsoring the Hoekstra bill. This bill, along with a companion bill in the Senate, revives a formula that drove GOP education policy in the 1990s: that the best route to accountability is through local control and parental choice, not a bigger federal footprint on education.

"We must move education decisionmaking out of Washington closer to where it belongs – with parents and teachers," said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, a cosponsor of the Senate version of this bill and typically one of the strongest supporters of the Bush administration in the Senate.

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