Conservatives and No Child Left Behind

President Bush and key Democrats believe the No Child Left Behind Act is a success. They want the law re-authorized this year. Does conservative opposition spell trouble for President Bush's signature education plan?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Bush wants Congress to re-authorize No Child Left Behind this year. It may be a tough sell. Commentator Andrew Rotherham says conservative opposition spells real trouble for the law.

ANDREW ROTHERHAM: The joke cannot be lost on President Bush. He has spent the better part of the last six years appealing to the conservative base of his party, but as Congress begins to debate continuing the No Child Left Behind Act, which is President Bush's only bipartisan domestic policy accomplishment, influential conservatives in Congress are openly opposing the law.

This is not surprising. When the law was first passed in 2001, many conservatives held their noses because it increased the federal role in elementary and secondary education. Congressman Tom DeLay told Rush Limbaugh that he voted for what he called that awful education bill only to support President Bush. DeLay said that he came to Washington to eliminate the Department of Education, so it was very hard for him to vote for something expanding its authority.

It's also not surprising that many teachers, principals and school administrators do not like No Child Left Behind, either. No industry embraces regulation, and the education law holds schools more accountable for student performance than in the past.

But opposition from conservatives and the education establishment adds up to a big problem for the president. As a rule, when the political right and left line up against education reform, it spells trouble.

It was a coalition of left and right that killed the first President Bush's push for national education standards, and the same liberal-conservative coalition thwarted President Bush's proposal for voluntary national tests.

That does not mean No Child Left Behind is doomed. Powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill like Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator and powerful liberal, and House Education Committee Chairman George Miller continue to support the law's tough accountability requirements. They see No Child Left Behind as an essential strategy to close the gaps in student achievement that separate students by race and income, but if the president wants to see No Child Left Behind continued, he must do two things.

First, he needs to make the case about why the law matters. He didn't do that in January's State of the Union. Now he must get out of Washington and explain to average Americans why improving schools matters to everyone and how the law helps in that effort.

Second, he must give Kennedy and Miller what they need to strike a deal among Democrats to pass a revised version of the law that is not completely watered-down. That means increasing federal spending on schools over the objections of conservatives.

President Bush can still build a centrist coalition to support the law, but he does not have much time. Conservatives are revolting, and the education establishment sees a chance to gut a law they never liked anyway. Without strong leadership from the president, No Child Left Behind is in jeopardy because the political center will not hold.

SIEGEL: Andrew Rotherham is a member of the Virginia Board of Education and co-director of Education Sector, a national education policy think-tank.

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