One last thing, Mr. President

Ted Kennedy counts on lame duck President Bush to give No Child Left Behind a new lease on life

NOTE: Sen. Edward Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor after this edition of CommonWealth went to press.

Like any good Democrat, Sen. Ted Kennedy is hoping that his party gets a big win in November — big enough to secure the congressional majorities gained in 2006 and also to take over the White House. That outcome would do wonders for the Democratic agenda on Capitol Hill, which this year has faced a constant roadblock at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

So why is Kennedy, despite the reluctance of many in his party’s caucus, still insisting that this is the year to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind education law? Because his best hope of preserving the law he wrote seven years ago may rest in the hands of the man with whom he forged the original compromise, President George W. Bush.

It’s not hard to see why Kennedy may feel that way. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made it clear during the Democratic primaries that they are no fans of the 2001 law. Earlier this year, campaigning for his wife, former President Bill Clinton even criticized Kennedy — who’d recently endorsed Obama — by name. “This was a train wreck that was not intended,” he said of the law. “No Child Left Behind was supported by George Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy and everybody in between. Why? Because they didn’t talk to enough teachers before they did that.”

Obama basked in Kennedy’s endorsement in January, but he hasn’t been much kinder to the law. He’s said he wants a “fundamental” revamp “so that we’re not just teaching to a test.”

“The problem is political as much as substantive,” says Paul Reville, the incoming state secretary of education. “The reality is that the passage of No Child Left Behind may have been a special event in political history that is now difficult to re-create.”

Kennedy has spent considerable time this year trying to overcome that difficulty, meeting with education-minded constituencies and policy experts to fashion a reauthorization bill. He says he hopes to convince his colleagues in Congress and President Bush to sign off on a revamped No Child Left Behind before Congress recesses for the year, sometime this fall. (Kennedy declined to comment for this story.)

To be sure, Kennedy — like many Democrats — has condemned the implementation of No Child Left Behind, particularly the funding levels sought by the Bush administration. Kennedy says the law needs an additional $70 billion to work as intended. But unlike many Democrats, Kennedy still believes that the law’s strictures, including its rigorous testing and school accountability standards, are more or less sound.

To preserve those standards and to win more federal funding to help states meet them, Kennedy’s best hope would seem to be a reauthorization compromise with Bush this year, followed by a big Democratic victory in November. Then, next year, Kennedy could pursue the funding levels he says have been needed from the beginning.

That plan figures to be a tough sell. Many Capitol Hill Democrats are wary of moving a Kennedy-led reauthorization, given the criticism of the law’s accountability standards from one of the party’s key constituencies, teachers’ unions. Last year, a House-driven reauthorization push by Democratic Rep. George Miller of California came unglued over union concerns about Miller’s plan to allow school districts to give raises to teachers based on student test scores. The Bush administration, meanwhile, opposed Miller’s bill because he also wanted to replace the current requirement that schools improve test scores with a system that relies on “multiple indicators” of progress — combining, for example, test scores with graduation rates.

But if Kennedy can bridge the divide and, in particular, get his fellow Democrats on record in support of his reauthorization bill, it’ll likely hold up at least until the next scheduled reauthorization, five years hence.

That would do a lot for Kennedy’s legacy. After all, the liberal lion is now 76 years old. He’s been a senator for nearly 46 years. When No Child Left Behind passed in 2001, it was touted as his crowning achievement as a legislator, an example of how Kennedy could cross the aisle and work with a conservative president to pass a landmark law.

If a Democratic president were to dismantle No Child Left Behind, by contrast, Kennedy’s legacy takes a hit. And Kennedy would probably not be any better off if Arizona Sen. John McCain were to become president. The presumed GOP presidential nominee has barely mentioned No Child Left Behind on the campaign trail, only saying that he sees it as a “good beginning” and that he would look to increase its emphasis on science and math.

Also, a President McCain would come under pressure from congressional Republicans who have grown disenchanted with the law in recent years and more aggressive in critiquing it as a federal intrusion into a policy area better handled by the states. More than 60 House Republicans have signed onto a bill by Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra that would allow states to opt out of the law’s requirements entirely and still collect federal education funding.

Kennedy has addressed such concerns, saying that any reauthorization bill should give states more flexibility to help their worst-performing schools and provide more leeway to states in evaluating student progress. But he is determined to maintain the law’s tough standards.

“We can’t abandon the law’s focus on helping every one of our students compete and win in the global economy,” Kennedy said in January as the law reached its six-year anniversary.

For Massachusetts students, a Kennedy-led reauthorization — rather than one spearheaded by Clinton or Obama — would help maintain support for what is widely acknowledged to be one of the toughest, and most successful, student achievement programs in the country.

That doesn’t mean that Massachusetts has fared so well when it comes to meeting No Child Left Behind’s standards for schools, or that No Child Left Behind enjoys any greater popularity in the Bay State than it does elsewhere. Indeed, under one of the most criticized portions of the law, states are allowed to set their own student achievement standards for their schools. States that set a high bar, as Massachusetts did, face a more difficult burden getting their students up to grade level.

That doesn’t sit well with many Massachusetts teachers, who point out that last September they learned that Bay State students had outscored peers in every other state on a national assessment conducted by the federal Department of Education. That same month they learned that the percentage of Massachusetts schools determined under No Child Left Behind rules to not be meeting yearly progress goals actually rose to 39 percent.

“There’s no way you can be No. 1 on the national assessment and have high rates going to college and look at No Child Left Behind and we’re doing poorly. It just doesn’t make sense,” says Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

But the fact that Wass trusts Kennedy to repair the law so as to prevent such an outcome — by providing more leeway to states not only to set standards but also to measure progress — indicates that he may still have enough good will among union leaders to reach a reauthorization deal.

“I know a lot of people in other states are upset with Sen. Kennedy,” Wass says. “We don’t believe the law was implemented in an effective way. But I totally believe his commitment to low income and minority kids. We want to work with him to fix this.”

And in Bush, Kennedy may have a willing partner once again. The president, like the senator, is thinking about his legacy. He’s eager to prove that his most impressive domestic policy achievement can stand the test of time.

Indeed, fearful that his successor will dismantle No Child Left Behind, Bush’s Education Department has released a string of regulatory changes this year aimed at fine-tuning the law without having to get Congress’s sign-off.

Kennedy has praised some of these changes, but he and Bush still have wide policy differences. Bush likes the idea of merit pay and also wants to give states the power to bypass labor agreements in order to reassign teachers and to dedicate more funds to private tutoring programs. Democrats like Kennedy instead favor more experimentation with methods of evaluating schools’ progress, shifting away from standardized tests that evaluate students against their predecessors in favor of growth models that evaluate one group of students as it moves from grade to grade.

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
In the end, says the Board of Education’s Reville, the impending elections may thwart legislative compromise. But as was the case in 2002, sometimes unexpected alliances produce big results.

“One way or another No Child Left Behind is going to come back,” he says. “The question is how much fidelity it will have to the principles and mechanisms of the original law.”