- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2011

The clock is ticking on former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.

Bipartisan negotiations are under way in the Senate with four members - two Republicans and two Democrats - of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee beginning to craft a comprehensive overhaul to federal education policy.

The discussions are a response to President Obama’s call last month for Congress to pass such legislation before the start of the next school year. The law would replace Mr. Bush’s signature education initiative, which has become a punching bag for the Obama administration and some members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

Not everyone has signed on to the president’s timetable, however.

While HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, plans to introduce a bill before summer, the GOP-controlled House, led by Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican, is essentially disregarding Mr. Obama’s August deadline.

Alexandra Haynes Sollberger, communications director for the House committee, said Friday that work will continue on education legislation, but Mr. Kline stands by earlier statements that he will not be bullied by Mr. Obama.

“For the sake of our children’s future and the strength of the American workforce, we must take the time necessary to get this right,” Mr. Kline said in a joint statement with subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary education Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican.

Their comments came after a White House meeting with education policymakers on March 10.

In the White House reform plan unveiled four days later, Mr. Obama called for a more advanced system of grading a school’s performance, calling the No Child Left Behind Act’s method of measuring districts little more than “unsophisticated bubble tests.” The plan would also broaden the tests administered to students, moving away from the math-and-reading standard in place for the past decade and replacing it with an increased focus on the arts and other subjects.

The administration’s education blueprint also calls for doubling federal investments in “family engagement,” funneling more money to school districts so they craft “innovative ways to engage parents and community members.” That call for increased funding comes while Republicans and Democrats wrangle over multibillion-dollar cuts to address the nation’s mounting debt.

In his plan, Mr. Obama took aim at No Child Left Behind, calling it a “one-size-fits-all” approach at a time when states and individual school districts must be allowed to make adjustments as they see fit, tailoring programs to the needs of their students.

The federal Department of Education estimates that 80 percent of schools could be labeled “failing” under No Child Left Behind guidelines by the end of this year. Right now, only 37 percent of districts are failing meet federal benchmarks.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican and one of the four HELP Committee members now in closed-door negotiations, agrees with Mr. Obama that the heavy-handed approach of No Child Left Behind must be revamped.

“Sen. Enzi believes that we must give states the tools and flexibility they need to improve their schools, because we have learned from NCLB that one size does not fit all, particularly in rural schools,” said Joe Brenckle, the Republicans’ spokesman for the HELP committee.

Mr. Brenckle said Mr. Enzi is working with Mr. Harkin, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, to draft the Senate version of an education reform bill, but neither party will disclose further details or comment on how closely the proposal will mirror Mr. Obama’s plan.

“We’re focused on doing our part right now. This is a unique opportunity for the Senate to move first,” said Justine Sessions, the Democrats’ spokeswoman for the HELP Committee.

The House and Senate committees will hold competing hearings on education Thursday. Mr. Harkin, who also chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education and related agencies, will meet at 10 a.m. in the Dirksen Senate Office Building to review the administration’s 2012 budget request for the Department of Education. At the same time in the Rayburn House Office Building, the Education and the Workforce Committee will hold a hearing on education reforms. Witnesses for the House hearing have yet to be announced.