NCLB: Are the fixes worse than the flaws?

WASHINGTON–Parents and teachers don’t like it. For many students, it has failed to produce the promised benefits. And experts agree it urgently needs to be fixed.

But that doesn’t mean Congress is ready to revamp No Child Left Behind, the education reform law pushed by President George W. Bush with bipartisan Congressional support in 2001. As controversial as the program remains, there is perhaps even more controversy about how to fix it. For some Connecticut officials, in fact, this fresh debate over federal education policy looks like a choice between bad and worse.

The Obama Administration in March unveiled a “Blueprint for Reform” that outlined sweeping changes to the law, including, among other things, scrapping No Child’s 2014 deadline for all public school students to reach proficiency in math and reading in favor of making them “college- and career-ready” by the time they finish high school.

Lawmakers in Washington have held more than a dozen hearings on the matter in recent months. And two key congressional committees have set August as a target for finishing a rewrite of the bill.

But critics–from powerful teachers’ unions to public school administrators to some members of Congress–say the White House’s proposed fix, even if it solves some issues, could also create a new set of problems.

“It’s just not a good fit for Connecticut,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Courtney ticked off several problems he has with the White House proposal, starting with the Administration’s move to make competitive grants a more permanent feature of federal education funding. The blueprint emphasizes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s plans to continue and build on the Race to the Top program, a $4.3 billion competitive grant initiative that entices states to enact new school standards for students, develop ways to measure academic growth, and better recruit and train teachers.

Duncan’s blueprint also proposes other new or broadened grant initiatives. For example, the plan calls for expanding the Investing in Innovation program, which offers grants to local education agencies and other organizations for new efforts that close student achievement gaps and decrease drop-out rates, among other goals. The shift toward more grant funding is also made clear in Obama’s proposed education budget for 2011, which calls for the elimination of some existing programs and directs more funding toward competitive grants.

Courtney and others fear that such a shift could translate into a significant disadvantage for Connecticut, which has more than 160 local education agencies–one for nearly every town or city in the state–instead of larger county-wide school districts, as many other states have.

“The notion that towns could engage in competitive grants” is not tenable, Courtney said. The town of Union, for example, with its 700 or so residents, would not be playing on a level field against Broward County, Fla., population 1.6 million.

Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research and advocacy organization, agreed that winning federal funds under this new structure could come down to “who writes a good proposal and knows how to push the right buttons,” something that many small and rural schools may not be well-equipped to do.

Courtney and others also argue that too much emphasis on divvying up federal funds through grants, as opposed to using federal formulas based on school districts’ demographics, could create financial uncertainty for local school districts. “It’s such an unreliable budgeting system,” Courtney said.

Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for Connecticut’s Department of Education, said the agency is watching the debate unfold in Washington with concern. “We understand the agenda in Washington is to usher in change,” Murphy said. “But we’re seeing that happen already with Race to the Top … If the pressure to change continues, without resources, there’s a real concern that the reform initiatives will evaporate. They will just not be sustainable.”

Others say these concerns are overstated. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, says he is also worried about Connecticut’s competitiveness, but for different reasons. “We were slow out of the box making some of the changes necessary” to reform the state’s schools, Himes said. Race to the Top provided the impetus needed to get the governor and state legislature moving.

“That created nationwide change. State after state after state has … really taken a leap” in enacting significant reforms, Himes said. And he sees no reason why additional competitive grants would not continue to build on that momentum.

When it comes to grant writing, he said, “you would have to convince me that six people in a county office are better than six people in Bridgeport.”

Alex Johnston, the CEO of ConnCAN, a school reform group, also argued that more competitive grants could be a net positive for Connecticut. He acknowledged that the state’s education system is not necessarily well-designed for this kind of federal endeavor, but he said that raises the question of whether state officials should think about reorganizing the school system.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in Connecticut who thinks having 169 districts is optimal,” Johnston said. The new federal focus could spur more regional collaboration, particularly if the Department of Education rewarded school districts that worked together to innovate and improve student achievement.

Even in the absence of such cooperation, “there are a number of Connecticut districts that are extremely well positioned to compete right now,” he said, citing New Haven and Hartford as examples. “There’s no reason other cities couldn’t position themselves as well.”

The give-and-take over competitive grants is just one element in a larger fight over how to fix No Child Left Behind.

Courtney and others, for instance, also have taken issue with the Obama Administration’s proposal for how to deal with the poorest-performing five percent of schools in each state. The White House has said these schools should apply for “school turnaround grants,” and then would have to choose one of four “rigorous interventions,” including firing the principal and at least half the staff or closing the school entirely and sending the students to another higher-performing school in the district.

Courtney said these “doomsday bomb” options will hinder efforts to get increased cooperation from teachers on quality improvement and evaluation measures, a major emphasis as Duncan seeks to transform American education.

And as with the competitive grants issue, critics say, there are serious questions about how such options would work in small towns or even big urban districts. “If you fire 35 teachers at a rural high school, there probably aren’t 35 others to come in and replace them,” said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a policy and advocacy group focused on high school reform.

Wise said there’s no question that for some of these low-performing schools, extreme measures are desperately needed. And others note that there are more modest steps, such as just firing the principal, included on the Administration’s menu of options. Still, lawmakers are likely to seek more flexibility in the law for these failing schools.

It’s unclear whether Congress will be able to resolve such contentious issues before the end of the year. Wise and others note that there is significant public pressure to redo No Child Left Behind, which polls show is unpopular with the public.

To be sure, there is near universal agreement–among parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers–that No Child Left Behind needs to be fixed. Critics say the law puts too much emphasis on standardized tests and is overly punitive for schools that don’t meet proscribed targets.

“There are many members who would love to go home and say they fixed No Child Left Behind,” said Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for the House Education and Labor Committee.

Wise and others said that leaving it in place for another year would ensure that more schools–including some well-performing ones–will be labeled as failing and targeted to reconstitution because they don’t meet the unrealistic proficiency targets.

“Inaction means … all you are doing is guaranteeing the doomsday machine keeps rolling,” Wise said.  But he concedes that with the clock ticking toward November, many lawmakers are reluctant to craft and vote on another massive and politically dicey reform bill.

“If they can’t get it done this year, they’ve got to lay the foundation for doing it in early 2011,” Wise said. “Otherwise, a lot of the positive reforms that Connecticut and other states have enacted” will falter.