Q and A with Jack Jennings

Main Story

Interview by Garry Boulard

Jack Jennings is the president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy and one of the most well-known education policy experts in Washington.

The founder of the CEP, Jennings formerly served as a subcommittee staff director for the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor before becoming the panel’s general counsel. He was extensively involved with the historic debates surrounding the National School Lunch Act, the Vocation Education Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In 1995 Jennings founded the CEP, using his more than three decades on the Hill to provide education policy analysis, and becoming, in the process, one of the most well-known federal and state education experts in the country.

Jennings' insights and understanding of the complex No Child Left Behind legislation proved invaluable to educators, policy analysts and reporters when the measure was first passed in 2002. Not surprisingly, he finds himself playing the same role again as the Obama administration and Congress consider reauthorizing NCLB.

State Legislatures: How would you explain the relationship that the states have had with the federal government as far as the No Child Left Behind legislation is concerned?

Jennings: The states right now are primarily looking at some kind of relief from the federal government with what they think are overly restrictive provisions in NCLB.

NCLB has been popular in the sense that everyone agrees with the goals to focus on students who are struggling—poor students, minority students, disabled students—but the mechanisms for accountability have been controversial.

Educators across the country have for a long time had a wide variety of problems and complaints with NCLB. And because it has been such sweeping legislation, there are plenty of things to complain about. But at the same time, almost everyone agrees that NCLB has been good in the sense that it has given so much attention to students who are struggling, such as poor, minority and disabled students.

Teachers don't like the emphasis on tests, they don't like the consequences for schools when they don't raise test scores adequately. State legislators have complained that the federal government is mandating accountability without paying for it because school districts have to mount remedial efforts to raise test scores and the federal government doesn't cover all of those costs.

SL: In what way have we seen the states take any kind of action, in terms of how they feel about NCLB or what they want to do with it?

Jennings: A number of states have had bills to withdraw from participation. One bill passed in Utah. But all states continue to participate. There has been disquietude. But the move to pull out on the part of the states has died down. And part of that is the hope that the Congress will change the law. Another part is that the policy debate has moved on.

Plus the focus lately as been on getting relief from the federal government. Once money from Washington through President Obama's stimulus package began to reach the states, they became more concerned with how that money should be used. The states are preoccupied with how do you use this money to offset state budget cutbacks, in other words, what do you do to survive for a couple of years until things get better?

I don't know if this means that the states have sat down and said let's be quiet about NCLB. I think they have just been so preoccupied with finding money and dealing with where they are going to cut that there isn't much time right now for other things.

SL: There have been many complaints about NCLB, one from educators who say if one group does not test well, that unfairly affects everything else in terms of the school's overall standing. Do you think these sort of complaints will be taken into consideration if NCLB is reauthorized?

Jennings: One of the complaints is that the accountability is too rigid. A state has to have a schedule to raise all students to proficiency by 2014 and every state can pick its own level of proficiency in its own tests. But nonetheless, they all have to raise all students to proficiency.

Some states have quite ambitious proficiency standards, such as Massachusetts and California and a few others. Its very difficult for their schools to raise the test scores for all of their students in all sub groups to meet the state standards.

And the more diverse the school is—if a school has multiple minority groups, disadvantaged groups, disabled students—the harder it is for them to reach the test level every year for every sub group.

SL: Why are there so many different complaints about NCLB?

Jennings: NCLB has really become a magnet for everybody's unhappiness about anything because it is such an unpopular brand and people blame it for all sorts of things. It is additionally unpopular today for the simple fact that it is so identified with Bush–when the mood went against him in the latter part of his presidency, a good deal of NCLB's popularity went with it.

SL: Do you think that the many different complaints about NCLB will be addressed in the reauthorization?

Jennings: The common assumption right now is that a simple reauthorization cannot occur. It is also presumed that the title is gone. Now the Congress is talking about an elementary and secondary education act reauthorization, because the NCLB was really a set of amendments to an underlying law enacted in the 1960s called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. So now Congress wants to talk about reauthorizing that underlying law, not NCLB.

There are now different versions of amendments circulating within Congress, but the leadership there is holding back because they want the Obama administration to make the first move. They want to hear from Obama in terms of what he would do with the law and then they will formalize what they want to do after that.

One way or the other, the states will have input. Every major group that is involved in education will be involved in this reauthorization. There will not be a word written that is not scrutinized by all of the major groups.

Garry Boulard is a free-lance writer in Albuquerque and a frequent contributor to State Legislatures.