About those NCLB proposals...

You have to hand it to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and her team: they are hardly dawdling during these last months of the Administration. On Tuesday, they announced a massive set of regulatory changes to No Child Left Behind that incorporates many of the "pilot programs" and reauthorization proposals that the Bush Team (and others) have floated over the past year.

Still, while Spellings put forth much that's laudable and sensible, upon close inspection there's less than meets the eye. This is particularly true when it comes to the law's interventions for schools found to be "in need of improvement." The problems with the law's current "cascade of sanctions" are multiple and legendary, but Spellings's new regulations don't provide the overhauls necessary to right the ship.

Take the lethargic efforts of many school districts to advertise the law's "free tutoring" opportunities. The proposed regulations would make a number of small and useful changes. For example, districts could spend federal money on marketing and outreach activities and charge that spending to the 20 percent of their Title I funds that they are supposed to allocate toward tutoring and school choice. Districts would also have to notify parents of their choice options at least 14 days before the start of the school year, and publish a description of their efforts to inform parents of these opportunities. Plus, before moving the tutoring dollars to something else (which is allowed under the law if not enough parents show interest), they would have to submit details to the state showing that they made an aggressive effort to sign up parents and failed. This sort of sunshine might be a valuable antiseptic.

What the regulations don't do, however, is implement a "use it or lose it" policy-requiring districts to either spend their tutoring dollars on tutoring or watch them disappear. Such an approach is probably the only one that could create strong enough incentives for many districts to begin running effective tutoring programs.

Likewise, Spellings's proposals would tighten the requirements for the fifth year of school improvement, when districts must "restructure" persistently failing schools. Basically, districts would have to show that this phase of reform is actually more significant than previous interventions. They can't just replace the curriculum or remove the principal and declare the school "restructured." That's good. But it would be even better if the notorious fifth option for restructuring, another approach of the district's choosing, was eliminated outright.

Now, to be fair, it's not the Administration's fault that its regulations didn't go further. No doubt the Department of Education's lawyers wouldn't let them issue proclamations that flat-out contradicted the clear language of the law. But the reticence demonstrates that even with these sort of fourth-quarter good intentions, nothing makes up for an actual rewrite of NCLB. Yet, with the Democratic primary race stretching far into the horizon, a shaky economy, and a war in Iraq, a slightly tweaked NCLB is probably the best we can achieve for the next couple of years.

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