- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2007

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said yesterday the administration will fight tenaciously for a few key changes to its signature education law, including helping children in chronically failed public schools to attend private schools instead.

During his State of the Union speech Tuesday, President Bush called on Congress to renew one of his key domestic accomplishments — the No Child Left Behind Act — this year, and the administration yesterday laid out its suggestions, including new requirements for high schools, a new focus on science, and aggressive restructuring tools for schools that have failed to make progress during the past five or six years.

Mrs. Spellings told editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday that she thinks a bill to renew the law will be ready to move through the Senate education panel by March or April.

“We must be much more aggressive and much more vigorous about those restructuring notions, including offering real school choice to the kids on those campuses,” Mrs. Spellings said. “We’ve given them a chance, we’ve given them resources, and it’s time for us to say ‘[The law] is a real promise and other options have to be brought to bear.’ ”

Top Democrats, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate education panel, immediately balked at the school-choice provisions, while indicating agreement in other areas. Democrats’ top goal is to secure a steep funding boost for the law, and Mrs. Spellings indicated the administration will use that as a bargaining chip.

“What levels of funding are calibrated to what levels of reform I think is the discussion we’ll have this year,” Mrs. Spellings said. “But you bet I am going to fight for these policies.”

She said funding details won’t be released until Mr. Bush sends his budget to Capitol Hill in the coming weeks.

Mr. Bush’s proposal for renewal wouldn’t change the bulk of the five-year-old law, which mandates that students be able to read and do math at grade level by 2014, and requires that states set standards and administer annual tests.

But Mrs. Spellings said she has “never been involved in the passage of a perfect bill,” so some changes are needed.

The administration’s proposal adds science to the list of subjects tested, requiring students to reach grade-level proficiency by 2020. It also would set more tests and requirements for high schools, such as collecting better graduation-rate data and partnering with colleges to develop English and math curricula that better prepare students for the workplace.

Meanwhile, conservatives on Capitol Hill have worried the administration will try to dramatically expand the law, either with more funding, by mandating new requirements for high schools, or both.

Some Republicans in the Senate and House want to keep the law’s high standards in place but let states enter a five-year performance agreement with the federal government in exchange for less regulation and more flexibility in how they would use federal dollars and would track their progress.

The administration’s proposal doesn’t go that far, though it does give states more flexibility in how they spend their federal education dollars.

Mrs. Spellings said she has spoken with some of these concerned conservatives and is open to more discussion, as long as the core requirements of the law aren’t watered down. But she also said there will be some degree of increased education funding this year.

Among its more contentious suggestions, the administration proposal would allow more aggressive action to be taken when a school has consistently failed to make progress for several years. Currently, chronically failing schools must offer their students the option of another public school or after-school tutoring.

But if a school fails to meet improvement standards repeatedly, which Mrs. Spellings defined as five or six years, the new proposal would give each child about $4,000 to take to another public school or a private school. It also would allow superintendents in these areas to convert the schools into charter schools even if a state’s charter-school limit has been reached. Superintendents also would be able to break union contracts in order to move teachers within these schools.

Right now, about 1,800 schools fall into this “chronically underperforming” category.

In communities with several failing schools, the administration proposal also would offer scholarships for pupils to attend private schools.

Democrats have argued that these struggling schools need more money in order to meet the law’s tough requirements.

House education panel Chairman George Miller, California Democrat, slammed the school-choice idea yesterday, saying it “didn’t pass muster when Republicans controlled the Congress, and it certainly won’t pass muster now that Democrats do.”

Mr. Miller said he’d consider some of the administration’s ideas but added “we won’t know if the president is seriously committed to the law until we see his budget.”

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