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Rebell: "No Child" Being Left Behind in the Presidential Race

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Published: 9/15/2008 3:31:00 PM

In Rush to White House, 'No Child' Is Left Behind
Obama, McCain Reveal Little on Updates for Plan

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008; A04

For the next president, one of the first domestic challenges will be to reshape the No Child Left Behind law, hailed six years ago as a bipartisan solution to America's education troubles.

But in their race for the White House, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are distancing themselves from what has become a tainted brand.

Education experts say the candidates have offered, at best, a fuzzy vision for the future of the No Child Left Behind law. Obama pledges to "fix the failures" of the law, while McCain seeks to avoid mention of it.

"This is the 10,000-pound gorilla, and yet nobody wants to talk about it. At both conventions, you hardly heard anyone say the words 'No Child Left Behind,' " said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to raise education standards. "I think that says a lot about how unpopular the law is, or at least the brand. Politicians, not wanting to take unnecessary risks, are keeping quiet."

A national poll released last month by Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup found that 67 percent of Americans think the law should be significantly changed or scrapped. A quarter of those polled said it's helping schools; 22 percent said it's hurting.

Education has been largely a back-burner issue in a campaign dominated by rising oil prices, a slumping economy and the Iraq war, but McCain and Obama have given clues on key school issues. Obama wants $18 billion in new federal spending, a major increase; McCain favors maintaining current funding. McCain has made school choice central to his education agenda, vowing to use public funding to help students attend private schools. Obama opposes vouchers.

McCain is squarely for teacher merit pay based on test scores; Obama supports pay for performance but only in cooperation with unions. Obama supports a significant expansion of early childhood programs. McCain supports the creation of more online schools and classes.

In recent days, as millions of parents sent their children back to school, the campaigns kicked up the rhetoric on education, each accusing the other of lacking a reform record. A McCain television advertisement says Obama's "one accomplishment" on education has been to support "comprehensive sex education" for kindergartners. Recently in Norfolk, Obama said McCain "has not done one thing to improve the quality of public education in our country, not one real law or proposal or initiative. Nothing. It has not been a priority for him."

The next iteration of the No Child Left Behind law, now overdue in Congress, could have major effects for millions of students and teachers. The law marked an unprecedented federal foray into public schools, requiring a dramatic expansion of testing. It aims to boost the achievement of students from poor families who have long trailed those who come from the middle and upper classes.

Both candidates say they support the law's lofty goal of leading every student to proficiency in reading and math. McCain voted for the legislation in 2001, as did many prominent Democrats who now support Obama. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose endorsement boosted Obama in the Democratic primary, was among the law's architects. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) also voted for it.

Obama has criticized the law's emphasis on standardized tests, calling No Child Left Behind "one of the emptiest slogans in the history of politics" and saying it needs more funding. One of his advisers, Jon Schnur, who was an education adviser in the Clinton White House, said the senator "doesn't want the country to retreat from the notion of high standards, accountability and a focus on assessments done right."

McCain, on his campaign Web site, says he will "build on the lessons of No Child Left Behind." But in major speeches, he hasn't mentioned the law. His advisers, including former Arizona school superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, say McCain wants to give children in schools with poor test performance quicker access to private tutoring, which is mandated under the law. McCain also supports a program that provides scholarships to low-income D.C. students for private school.

At the GOP convention, McCain said that when public schools fail to perform, "parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them. Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school."

Obama, who has offered a more detailed education platform, wants to significantly expand early childhood programs. His plan would provide public schools more money to add hours or days to the school year, or expand after-school programs. He also has pledged to "recruit an army of new teachers" with higher salaries and more support.

At Granby High in Norfolk, Obama said he supports higher pay for teachers and more spending on charter schools. "Let's finally help our teachers and principals develop a curriculum and assessments that teach our kids to become more than just good test-takers."

But neither candidate has offered detailed plans for No Child Left Behind. Michael A. Rebell, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, said the candidates are tiptoeing around the law because the debate has changed. In 2000, it was about values and promising to ensure that all kids learn. Now it's about the nitty-gritty -- whether to delay the law's 2014 target for universal proficiency; whether to use other yardsticks besides state tests to rate schools; and whether to ease sanctions on lagging schools.

"Both candidates have been walking very gingerly around the NCLB landmines and don't want to take a strong stand," Rebell said. "It alienates a lot of constituencies no matter what they do."

On the Democratic side, teachers unions are critical of the law. In a July speech, Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, called it a well-intentioned effort that has "become a blunt instrument for attacking, not assisting, our public schools." Many teachers, she said, consider it a "four-letter word."

But civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, have been vocal supporters of a law they see as a way to ensure minority children aren't ignored.

Many Republicans say Washington is meddling too much in the operation of schools, traditionally the purview of state and local governments. Even the staunchest supporters want changes. Making everyone happy is impossible.

" 'No Child Left Behind' -- those four words really have become this hot-button issue," said Marc S. Lampkin, executive director of Strong American Schools Ed in '08, an effort funded through philanthropists Bill Gates and Eli Broad to raise education issues' profile in the election. "If you're a right-winger conservative, you don't like the federal intrusion. If you're a left-wing, pro-union person, you don't like the fact that the accountability system with its penalties focuses on teachers."