If States Win, Kids May Lose
Ohanian Comment: Read this and you'll understand why I gave up writing oped pieces for USA Today. After I'd written a lot of pieces for them, they asked me to write a piece about national standards. But then, the editors kept saying, "Nice piece, but not for our readers." Finally I caught on that their readers are the corporate fellows getting a free newspaper in hotels across America. Irate that the editors refused to acknowledge the value of the children I wrote about, I told them not to call me any more.
Telling, isn't it, that the only issue on which the USA Today editorial board insisted on censoring me was national standards and testing?
Three years ago, the No Child Left Behind school reform law passed with strong bipartisan support. Since then, the law has survived political potshots and widespread complaints from teachers, not to mention the Education Department's ill-advised $240,000 contract with commentator Armstrong Williams to promote it.
Still, the law remains under fire, notably from the Republican stronghold of Utah. Starting today and continuing over the coming months, state challenges to the law will determine whether the reform gets neutered. While Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says she will never gut the heart of the law - holding states accountable for educating poor and minority children - there are signs the department might waffle on key points such as teacher quality.
Grounds for the challenges include:
•States' rights. Many state legislators insist that responsibility for educating their children falls under state authority. As such, they prefer their own school accountability system. Today, the Utah Legislature considers breaking away from the federal law, even if that means risking the $106 million a year the state receives in federal school aid.
• Inadequate funding. Earlier this month, Connecticut's attorney general announced plans to sue the federal government for providing insufficient money to pay for implementing No Child Left Behind. Federal aid to Connecticut falls $41.6 million short of paying for the required annual testing in grades 3-8, the state says.
Utah and Connecticut want other states to join their rebellion, and many are tempted. Utah represents the most serious challenge. Utahans say they're doing well on their own: A recent study on how students fare on Advanced Placement (AP) tests put Utah third from the top. Sounds good. Except AP tests, usually taken by the best students, aren't a very broad measure. Here's a broader measure: Utah has the nation's widest learning gap between whites and Latinos.
In the fight over funding, both sides have a point. President Bush can cite the steep climb in federal aid to poor schools. And states can easily show that those increases fall short of what it will take to achieve the law's goal - all students achieving "proficiency" by 2014.
Some compromises are inevitable. A taste of that came earlier this month when Spellings announced a fresh round of concessions. Her actions were wise, but not enough to defuse the rebellions.
The question is where to draw the line. Spellings says she won't retreat on accountability systems that hold schools responsible for educating poor and minority students. That's appropriate, but less clear is whether the department will water down the law's provisions to guarantee that all children are taught by competent teachers.
In Utah's high-poverty secondary schools, for example, half the classes are taught by teachers lacking even a minor in their subject. By contrast, only 9% of teachers in low-poverty schools there lack that credential. Despite that gap, Utah wants exemptions from the law's teacher-quality provisions.
For decades, school accountability was left to the states. One result: The average black or Latino 17-year-old has the same reading and math skills as the average 13-year-old white student. Washington shouldn't squander their last best chance to get ahead.
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