Congress should make changes, renew No Child

DALLAS - If by this time next year, Congress and the White House have not worked out a compromise on their top education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, you will know that the left and right have prevailed. In truth, there's enough interest in the middle to get a new and better model passed by year's end.

From President Bush to Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, the Democrats' education leaders, key people up and down Pennsylvania Avenue want this bill renewed now that its five-year life is ending. You could see that when these people gathered at the White House to celebrate its anniversary.

But here are the problems:

There is uncertainty about the quid pro quo the GOP administration and Democratic Congress must strike. This could be where the left kills the deal.

It's also unclear how much support Bush has among his own people for a rewrite. This could be where conservatives undermine things.

And there's a procedural problem. Two education bills stand in line ahead of No Child. Bills governing Head Start and overseeing federal aid to higher education have been stuck for a while.

Surely, Congress realizes those bills don't rival the importance of No Child, which is crucial to students' progress. By focusing on their performance, the law has sparked a vigorous discussion about how well schools serve students, particularly low-income children. It also has highlighted a gap between affluent and poor schools.

"NCLB put the gap on the map," Amy Wilkins of the respected Education Trust told me.

The quid pro quo part will be the difficult battle. Some Democrats will want big money to fund the bill, just as they did when No Child was written.

There's little chance money will flow like a river since domestic dollars compete against 9/11 responses, foreign wars and budget rules that require legislators to pay for any spending hike.

However, schools should only get more money in return for states being required to test high school students each year. Today, No Child demands only that states test kids in grades 3 through 8. If the goal is more college-ready kids, says Sandy Kress, who negotiated the first No Child bill for Bush, then we need to know if they are ready.

Here's a third area: Give states cash to create databases that allow their schools to know how a child is doing year to year. Wilkins says states lack that ability, which also would help schools evaluate teachers.

I don't know how much each area needs, but they could form the basis of a deal.

I have little doubt Bush - and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings - wants to see No Child expanded. Education has been his passion since he was governor. And as one Texas Republican told me, this bill is his domestic legacy. He can't let it fall apart.

What he must do is keep up the internal pressure; if not, a combination of Iraq worries, budget pressures and staff hesitancy could slow things down.

This is more than some political scuffle. We need this bill to keep the pressure on schools so students can become creative thinkers and sustain our way of life.

And if that doesn't get Washington's attention, I don't know what will.

William McKenzie, an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News, can be reached at wmckenzie@dallasnews.com.