No strange bedfellow left behind

Surprising alliances found on both sides of No Child law

Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2007

If you like your politics full of surprising twists, you'll absolutely adore the debate over renewing the No Child Left Behind Act when it kicks into gear next month. The landmark federal education law is supported and opposed by so many unexpected fellow travelers that you might think Washington has fallen off its axis.

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That's actually refreshing because it shows that things aren't always predictable in politics. Here's what I mean:

Business groups and civil rights organizations, for instance, are teaming up to support keeping No Child strong.

The No Child Works coalition that formed last month includes the National Council of La Raza, arguably the nation's leading Hispanic organization; The Links Inc., a black women's group; and the Commission on Civil Rights, whose board members include heavy-duty Democrats like Bill Bradley and Eleanor Holmes Norton.

They're partners with such groups as the Business Roundtable in an alliance you rarely see.

These odd bedfellows believe in No Child's goal of getting all children reading and doing math at grade level by 2014. They also know we can't get there without knowing how well kids are doing year over year, which No Child addresses by requiring annual achievement tests and holding schools accountable for students' progress.

La Raza President Janet Murguia said as much when I put some questions to her last week.

"NCLB has changed the way school systems must deal with students whose low achievement they could once ignore," she wrote back. "This is particularly important for Latino and ELL (English-language learners) because too few have received education services that prepare them to leave high school ready to compete for seats at the nation's top colleges."

Excellent point. And in another interesting twist, her group, the Commission on Civil Rights, and the liberal Center for American Progress fired off a letter to House Education Committee chair George Miller last month when the California Democrat started toying with using multiple ways to measure student progress, not just state exams.

"We urge extreme caution with this approach," they wrote. "In our experience, institutions that are held accountable for too many things are, in the end, accountable for nothing."

Their voices will be vital as the debate revs up. If these groups don't persuade their Democratic friends and business leaders can't sway wavering conservatives, Congress could rewrite No Child in a way that lets schools off the hook.

There's an equally unusual arrangement of opponents to No Child, namely education unions and conservative Republicans. Go figure.

The education lobby, led by the National Education Association, favors those multiple measures that Miller is considering.

That's a real dangerous slope. Yes, schools deserve credit for how much they add to a child's progress in a year, but things get wishy-washy real fast when you start adding subjective areas like looking at a child's essay to determine whether he or she is progressing.

I'm pulling hard for a business-civil rights coalition, but this is going to be one debate worth watching for the element of surprise.

• Contact William McKenzie at

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