Washington The last thing President Bush needs is another fight with his own political base. But that is what he has found as he presses Congress to renew the No Child Left Behind Act, the signature education program passed by a bipartisan majority in the first months of his first term.
Last week, 57 Republican legislators signed on as sponsors of legislation that would - in the view of the administration - destroy No Child Left Behind. The bill would allow any state that objected to the law's standards and testing to excuse itself from those requirements, and still receive federal school aid.
Sponsors, who include Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the House GOP whip, and Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, say the measure is needed to curb federal interference in local schools.
The backlash against No Child Left Behind has been building almost from the moment it was enacted in the winter of 2001-2002 as one of Bush's first legislative successes.
By requiring annual tests in the elementary grades in English and math, and by demanding that schools show that all students, regardless of background, are making progress toward proficiency, the program sought to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities and lift overall performance toward world-class standards.
But parents complained that the emphasis on testing basics was narrowing the curriculum for bright students and that the rankings were not making allowances for the poverty or language limitations of many kids who were failing.
Teachers and their unions, especially the big National Education Association, also asserted that they were being unfairly regimented and penalized by the application of the new law - and also challenged the evidence that it was improving student performance.
These are not trivial concerns, and the Republican effort to change the law shows that politicians have been hearing and heeding the complaints. But the remedy they are recommending seems drastic - and the abandonment of the first serious national effort to raise standards in the schools would be disastrous.
Under the Republican proposal, states could, at their own initiative, opt out of the law's requirements while continuing to receive their share of the billions the federal government now invests in elementary and secondary schools. To measure progress in the schools, states could use their own standards.
As Chester E. Finn Jr., a conservative who once worked for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, co-wrote recently, most state standards "were mediocre-to-bad 10 years ago," before No Child Left Behind, "and most are mediocre-to-bad today. They are generally vague, politicized, and awash in wrongheaded fads and nostrums. With a few exceptions, states have been incapable (or unwilling) to set clear, coherent standards, and develop tests with a rigorous definition of proficiency."
Finn and his colleagues at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education think tank, are critical of No Child Left Behind and the federal Department of Education for getting too deeply enmeshed in the day-to-day routine of schools, instead of emphasizing the goal of proficiency in key subjects, encouraging states to find their own best methods of teaching, and then testing for results.
As the legislation comes up for renewal, thoughtful legislators of both parties, such as Ted Kennedy, George Miller, Buck McKeon and Mike Castle, are working with Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, to apply the lessons of the past to the specific provisions for the future.
The president, who has disdained compromise with the Democrats on Iraq policy, or the budget, or much of anything else, finds himself dependent on Democratic help to rescue this notable domestic initiative. He is lucky that they are still willing to give it.
There are ways to reinforce the goals of high proficiency for all students while reducing the bureaucratic regulations, and that should be the measuring stick for renewal of No Child Left Behind.
But the dissenting Republicans' idea of letting every state set its own standards and measure its own progress is a certain way to consign many youngsters to second-class educations. And that would be a serious step backward.