Stateline Story

Businesses Urge Congress to Stay the Course on Federal Education Law

  • December 05, 2003
  • By Pamela Prah

Business groups are urging Congress to resist the clamor from states and schools to reform the federal No Child Left Behind education law, and say instead that Washington should "give the law the time it needs to work."

National business organizations, led by the Business Roundtable reiterated their "strong support" for No Child Left Behind in Dec. 3 letters to all members of Congress.

"Despite the challenges, NCLB is helping American educators and students make important progress. We urge Congress to keep its eyes on the prize a quality education for all," business leaders wrote. The roundtable is made up of 150 chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies.

The National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce were among other groups that signed the letter. Employers are active in education reform because businesses often have to train high school graduates they hire in basic reading and math skills.

States and schools across the country are struggling with the sweeping No Child Left Behind law, prompting some state lawmakers, school administrators and critics of the law to call on the Bush administration and Congress to step in and make changes. The same day the business groups' letter went to members of Congress, Dec. 3, the National Conference of State Legislatures told the White House it was convening a task force come up with legislative and regulatory fixes for the law. "It ... seems, despite the administration's reservations, that an assessment and development of future legislative changes is crucially needed," the NCSL wrote.

Although the business groups want Congress to hold off on any such revisions, CEOs are also banking on the Bush administration to clarify regulations for testing special education students and students who do not speak English.

"We need common-sense answers" from the U.S. Department of Education on how states and schools should test special education students and children "fresh from another country" who have limited English skills, said Sandy Kress, a former senior advisor to President Bush who helped shepherd NCLB to passage and is now an education policy advisor to the roundtable.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), a chief architect of NCLB, said the U.S. Department of Education will issue regulations soon to help states figure out how to test special education students. He predicted that the 2004 "political season" will heighten the anti-NCLB rhetoric and "misinformation" about the sweeping education law.

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, told Stateline.org Dec. 4 the department expected to publish Dec. 9 new regulations that will allow 1 percent of severely disabled students to take alternative tests and not count toward their schools' overall performance.

Boehner made his comments during a panel discussion the roundtable held Dec. 3, bringing together top political, policy and education leaders to discuss the law's impact.

All six panelists gave the No Child Left Behind law itself an "A," but most panelists gave states and localities only a "C" for implementing it or an "I" for an incomplete, arguing that it will take years for states to fully comply.

States earned a "B" from Kress, who singled out Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota for their NCLB efforts. Kress also told Stateline.org that Texas, Massachusetts and Florida "were leaders before No Child Left Behind and are using the law to move to another level," particularly in preparing high school students for college and the work world.

Boehner said states will regret lowering their education standards. "If you want to dumb down your standards, you can do that, but you will be exposed when your kids take the NAEP," he said referring to the National Assessment of Education Progress test that the federal law requires states to administer. If a state's students score off the charts on their own state test but rank low on NAEP, then parents, teachers and voters will know the state tried to "game the system" and will pressure state officials to raise their standards, he predicted.

Boehner, who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, criticized states for not getting the word out to school districts that a pot of federal money is available to help schools that did not measure up and landed on states' "need improvement" lists. "Try to find a principal or superintendent who knows that help is there," he said.

Of the $2 billion in federal money set aside for after-school tutoring and other "supplemental services," only $40 million has been spent, said Lisa Graham Keegan, chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The roundtable's letter to Congress follows a Nov. 18 letter from more than 100 African-American and Latino school district superintendents urging leaders on Capitol Hill and in the White House not to "roll back" the federal law's accountability provisions and to provide more funds.