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Teacher unions and civil rights groups battle over future of No Child Left Behind
Split in traditional alliances signals a new era in education reform as reformers push for accountability and equity beyond "test and punish." - photo by Eric Schulzke
When the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a new education bill to replace the increasingly unworkable and unpopular No Child Left Behind law last week, one key amendment lay on the cutting room floor.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would have required that states track low-performing schools on test scores, as well as those that graduate fewer than 67 percent of students. How states go about fixing those schools would be up to them.

But the Murphy amendment was defeated on a party-line vote, with civil rights groups and Democrats in favor while teacher unions and Republicans opposed it.

To critics of the current No Child Left Behind law, including the teacher unions, the Murphy amendment was just another effort to keep "test and punish" NCLB alive to fight another day. Meanwhile, the nation's leading civil rights groups want to lock in federal oversight to keep states from sweeping problems of poor and minority students under the rug.

Teacher unions going head to head with civil rights groups? It's a scenario that would have been nearly unthinkable a generation ago. "It is striking that two pillars of the Democratic coalition would be in such sharp disagreement," said Michael Petrilli, head of the center-right Fordham Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based education think tank.

The split, Petrilli notes, began in 2002 after President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind with Sen. Edward Kennedy by his side. From that point, civil rights leaders have been pressing for tight federal oversight of school performance, while teacher unions have become vocal opponents of the standardized testing regime that goes with that federal control.

Whatever form the new education law takes once it works its way through conference committees and a possible White House veto, it now seems certain that the next version will feature less federal control. But education reformers, civil rights groups and teacher unions continue to grapple with how to achieve accountability and equity without further empowering a heavy-handed federal government.

"The missing ingredient is mutual trust that we have policy solutions that will actually support these schools," said Halley Potter, a policy analyst at Washington, D.C.-based Century Fund.

Means and ends

Potter says she understands why teachers are concerned. "We haven't had a good track record of healthy alternatives to punishment," she said, "and teachers have been too often blamed for school and societal failures that lie wholly outside their control.

"Regardless of what you think of the NEA's advocacy on these issues," Potter said, "if you care about the future of education you have to ask why they are reacting this way."

Teacher unions, said Lynn Jennings, a legislative affairs analyst for the Education Trust, are reacting out of fear based on their experience with NCLB. "The reaction right now is more about the way they feel than what is actually in the text," Jennings said.

The Murphy amendment would have required states to single out low-performing schools for attention, Jennings said, but the solutions would be chosen by states. But teachers fear that it would be a short leap from there to more coercion.

Lurking behind these fears is, oddly enough, the flexible response of the Obama administration when NCLB proved unworkable. The administration began routinely issuing NCLB waivers to states without any grounding in law. It offered flexibility that was not in the law, but only to the states that conformed to administration demands that were also not in the law.

The state of Washington, for example, currently lacks a waiver, and the entire state is in NCLB purgatory because the Legislature refused Department of Education demands that it base teacher evaluations on standardized tests.

Points of agreement

The conflict between civil rights groups and teacher unions does mask agreement around some key points, Potter said.

Civil rights groups and teacher unions all agree that the data need to track performance of subgroups, such as poverty status or ethnicity, which most people agree was one of the best parts of NCLB. They also all agree on broader measures of success beyond standardized test scores and on the need to move beyond punishing failing schools to supporting them.

"The fight is less about where we want to go and more about how we get there," Potter said.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, is passionate about teacher testing, or "test and punish," as she calls it. She is clearly agitated by years of pressure placed on teachers, often due to funding, economic and social factors beyond the school's control.

Garcia said the NEA will "fight like tigers" to make sure that key data showing which schools and which kids are struggling will remain available. "That was the one good thing that came out of NCLB," she said.

"But when you look at kids who are not progressing in the same way as better off children, the NCLB answer is that someone's head has to roll," Garcia said. "Instead, we want to use that information to highlight how we are short-changing these kids on resources."

Garcia is well aware that educators are now sparring with civil rights groups, but she believes that if those groups listened to their base, such as parents and teachers rather than lawyers or lobbyists, they would sing a different tune.

A job for states

The Murphy amendment, though defeated in the Senate, is far from dead, said Petrilli.

The Senate and House negotiators will now negotiate a final bill, and the White House, which will have to sign off on the results, will have someone in the conference room. And the White House will push hard for something like the Murphy amendment, Petrilli expects.

In this particular education reform battle, Petrelli is neither fish nor foul. He favors strong accountability requirements for teachers and schools, including regular testing, but he wants to see those standards created and enforce by the states, not the federal government.

"The public has a right to expect good performance from schools," Petrilli said, "but there is an overwhelming consensus that we didn't get the details right on NCLB and many doubt the federal government will get the details right this time either."

Petrilli said it would not be too upsetting if the Murphy amendment made it back into the final package, though he would prefer it be left out.

"It's not that big a deal," he said. "It's a nudge but falls short of where current policy is with the NCLB waivers. It should not be a deal breaker for conservatives who want a smaller federal role."
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