You have to hand it to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and her team: they are hardly dawdling during their Administration's closing months. 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 Team Bush and others have floated over the past year. Mirabile dictu, maybe they don't really need new legislation after all.
While Spellings put forth much that's laudable and sensible, upon close inspection there's a bit less there than meets the eye, particularly when it comes to the law's interventions for schools deemed "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 that ship.
Take the lethargic efforts of many school districts to advertise the law's "free tutoring" (also called SES) 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 (permitted today when 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 can't but help.
Still, what the new regulations don't do is implement a "use it or lose it" policy--requiring districts to either spend their tutoring dollars on tutoring or watch them disappear. That's probably the sole approach that could create strong enough incentives for many districts to begin running effective tutoring programs. Like Missouri mules, sometimes they need a 2x4 across the withers.
Spellings's proposals would also 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." Well and good. But it would be so much better if the notorious fifth option for restructuring, basically any other approach that the district fancies, were eliminated outright.
It's not entirely 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 contradict the clear language of the law. In the end, the statute has a number of flaws that only Congress can correct. 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 year or two.