Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The battle over renewing President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law this year began in earnest yesterday, as House and Senate lawmakers heard a range of suggested changes — such as greater leniency and help for struggling schools, new systems to measure teacher effectiveness and even voluntary national standards.

“We must ensure that all children are taught by teachers who can demonstrate their effectiveness in the classroom,” Roy E. Barnes, co-chairman of the Commission on No Child Left Behind, said at a joint House-Senate hearing. His commission recommended requiring teachers to demonstrate their effectiveness, helping those who struggle but asking those who don’t improve in seven years to leave the neediest schools.

But Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association (NEA), argued that the best way to secure and retain effective teachers — a key goal of lawmakers — is to focus efforts on providing better starting salaries, financial incentives, reduced class sizes, mentoring programs and a better school environment.

Business, education, union, state and local leaders gave suggestions on a range of issues involving No Child Left Behind at the hearing, led by House education panel Chairman George Miller of California and his Senate counterpart, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Mr. Barnes’ commission called for the creation of voluntary national standards, while Elizabeth Burmaster, president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, argued for less federal intrusion and more autonomy for states. “Give me some more flexibility,” she said.

“You’re the only one I see up there that has any concept of freedom,” Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican and staunch critic of the law’s federal reach into the classroom, told her.

Mr. Hoekstra and other Republicans plan to introduce a bill later this week that would free states and schools from some of the law’s federal regulations.

And the House Education and Labor Committee’s top Republican, Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, introduced a bill yesterday that would give parents money to place their child in a private school, if their public school is given a failing grade for five consecutive years.

Mr. McKeon conceded it probably won’t go anywhere because of strong opposition from Democrats and groups such as the NEA, but said he still intends to fight for it — arguing that it is critical to improving education.

Lawmakers from both parties will soon start to piece together legislation renewing the five-year-old No Child Left Behind law, which mandates that students be able to read and do math on grade level by 2014, and requires states to set standards, test students and measure progress. Critics say it’s far too onerous; supporters say it rightly holds states accountable.

Several specialists urged the government to ease the way it measures progress of struggling schools in order to give schools credit for making strides in improving student performance even if they fall short of annual targets, known as adequate yearly progress.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, suggested giving schools three years to make needed changes.

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