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State Takes On Feds: Officials Deny They Are `Un-American' In Education Policy

"It's the slash-and-burn rhetoric of a Beltway political operative, not the approach you would expect from the nation's chief educator," said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education.

Connecticut officials reacted angrily Friday after U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings accused them of dodging President Bush's school reform law and implied that their attitude toward black children is "un-American."

In a television interview, Spellings criticized what she called "the soft bigotry of low expectations" after Connecticut threatened to file a lawsuit challenging requirements of the 3-year-old No Child Left Behind Act.

"Here they are on the eve of [the law's] implementation telling us they can't do it," Spellings said Thursday on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS.

The remarks escalated a simmering dispute between Connecticut and the U.S. Department of Education over the interpretation of the law.

"It's the slash-and-burn rhetoric of a Beltway political operative, not the approach you would expect from the nation's chief educator," said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education.

Earlier this week, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal pledged to make Connecticut the first state to file a lawsuit challenging the federal law, which he said will unfairly cost state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Spellings disputed that assertion and said in Thursday's interview that Connecticut is shirking its responsibility to meet the chief goal of No Child Left Behind: closing the academic gap that finds many low-income minority children lagging behind middle-class white children.

"I think it's regrettable, frankly, when the achievement gap between African American and Anglo kids in Connecticut is quite large," Spellings said to interviewer Ray Suarez. "And I think it's unfortunate for those families and those students that they are trying to find a loophole to get out of the law as opposed to attending to the needs of those kids."

She said, "I think it's un-American ... for us to take the attitude that African American children in Connecticut living in inner cities are not going to be able to compete, are not going to be prepared to compete in this world and are not going to be educated to high levels. That's the notion, the soft bigotry of low expectations, as the president calls it, that No Child Left Behind rejects."

Connecticut's 20-year-old mastery test for fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders is regarded as among the most rigorous in the nation, but Spellings has said that it is not sufficient to meet the requirements of the act. Last month she rejected the state's request to waive the law's requirement to expand testing to third-, fifth- and seventh-graders.

State officials say developing and administering the extra tests would cost millions of dollars without producing much new information.

Connecticut is also one of many states that have lodged complaints about other provisions of the law, including its requirements for testing special education students, but Spellings announced this week that the U.S. Department of Education will allow more flexibility in testing those students in states that are committed to the No Child Left Behind Act and that show academic progress.

Along with its broad expansion of testing, the law requires a shake-up of schools that fail to meet academic standards. A school can be cited if even a single group - such as special education students, low-income children or members of a racial minority group - fails to make progress.

Although Connecticut schoolchildren score at or near the top in reading and mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gaps in performance between white and black children and between middle-class and poor children remain among the largest in the nation.

The gap also remains large on state achievement tests, but results released last month show modest progress for low-income minority children who speak English and who are not in special education classes.

State Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg said the achievement gap has been a pressing issue for the state education department since at least the 1970s and Spellings' criticism is off the mark.

"Anyone who knows our track record in this state and our relentless focus ... on higher expectations for every single youngster in the state knows these remarks are just plain wrong," she said.

Part of the basis for the state's lawsuit against the federal Education Department, according to Blumenthal, is a clause in the No Child Left Behind Act prohibiting the government from ordering new programs without providing enough money to support them.

"Holding the federal government accountable for following the law is hardly un-American," Blumenthal said Friday. "I had hoped we were past using that term in public discourse in this country. ...

"I hope I'm wrong, but some of the hype and rhetoric seems designed to intimidate states like Connecticut that have the courage to stand up for their children."

Other officials, too, reacted sharply to Spellings' remarks.

"I thought it was a low blow to say that we have low expectations just because [the state] is saying [the extra testing] is cumbersome," said Reginald Mayo, superintendent of schools in New Haven, where minority students make up nearly 90 percent of enrollment. "I don't see anything un-American about someone asking for money to pay for the mandate."

Taylor, the state education board chairman, said Spellings' accusations were inaccurate.

"Her fundamental statement that we're not ready to implement the law is simply wrong," he said. "Our tests are ready to go, and if the law requires it, we will give them."

A discussion of this story with Courant Staff Writer Robert A. Frahm is scheduled to be shown on New England Cable News each hour Monday between 9 a.m. and noon.

— Robert A. Frahm
Hartford Courant


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