- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Key Republicans yesterday said President Bush’s education reform law, which is up for renewal this year, should be changed to give states more control over funding and results, arguing that the federal government remains far too involved in local classrooms.

Exactly five years after signing the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Bush met with a separate group of lawmakers, including Senate education panel chairman Edward M. Kennedy, to ask them to renew the law, one of Mr. Bush’s signature domestic accomplishments.

But across town, Republican Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas teamed up with the conservative Heritage Foundation to offer a proposal that would let states opt out of many of the federal education funding formulas and instead use the money to best fit their own classroom needs.

“You can’t have quality development with a top-down approach,” Mr. DeMint said. “It’s time to change the way we’re thinking about this because it’s not working.”

Mr. Cornyn agreed that the best option at this point is “moving decision-making power out of Washington and closer to parents and teachers.”

Their idea — which they’ll fight to include in the law’s renewal — would keep high standards in place but let states choose to 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. A similar idea was included in Mr. Bush’s original NCLB proposal but was watered down by the time the bill became law, according to Heritage.

Mr. Bush and administration officials yesterday praised the bipartisan law, which requires states to test third- to eighth-graders annually and once in grades 10 to 12, with the goal of ensuring that all students can read and do math at grade level by 2014. States had to set paths to meet that goal and track the progress of their schools. Consistently failing schools must offer students public-school choice and tutoring services.

New standards were also set for teachers’ ability.

“I think it’s made an enormous difference,” the president said, after meeting with Mr. Kennedy, House education panel chairman George Miller of California, and the panels’ top Republicans, Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California.

Mr. Bush said he was “confident” that the group can work together to address some of the major concerns about the law without weakening it.

“We have learned some things over the last five years, but we know we’re on the right track,” said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who also attended, along with first lady Laura Bush.

The four lawmakers all expressed hope that they could reauthorize the act, with some changes, and Mr. Enzi said there could be “quick progress.”

Democrats said they asked Mr. Bush to increase funding for the bill, insisting that states need more help to meet requirements. Federal education funding has jumped about $7 billion in the past five years under the law, but Democrats have long complained that it’s still about $40 billion short of levels set out in the original law.

“It’s an issue of priority — of budgetary priority,” Mr. Kennedy said yesterday.

“It will make the reauthorization process far more difficult if it’s not there,” Mr. Miller said.

Helping limited-English-speaking students and ensuring that more students in failing schools access the tutoring and school-choice options are among other issues being discussed, Mrs. Spellings said.

Conservatives likely will resist a further spike in education funding. But many conservatives on Capitol Hill are also “spooked” at the prospect of Mr. Bush cutting a deal with Democrats to expand the NCLB fully into high school, a House Republican aide said.

“If they do it the way they did the first one, then we’re looking at a massive new entitlement,” the aide said.

Mr. Bush included a proposal in his budget last year that expanded the annual testing to high school.

The White House praised the NCLB law yesterday, noting that all states now have accountability and testing plans in place, the number of highly qualified teachers has increased and 9-year-olds are scoring better than ever on reading and math.

Still, there has been relatively low participation in the tutoring and school-choice options offered under the law for students in consistently failing schools.

Mr. DeMint said schools are “squawking” that the law is too onerous. He said schools are focused so intently on meeting its requirements that they’re not trying creative solutions for education.

“This will require results … but it won’t be so focused on process,” Mr. Cornyn said of their proposal.

White House spokesman Chad Colby said the administration would wait to see details of the DeMint-Cornyn proposal.

“We’re all for allowing states and districts to have flexibility as long as they adhere to the core principles of NCLB though. We can’t get away from those core principles or reduce accountability in any way,” he added.

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