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NCLB Outrages

Buckle Down On No Child Left Behind

Ohanian Comment: Chester Finn exhibits characteristic charm toward public school educators, but he makes half a good point about the uneven nature of the Fed's so-called flexibility.

Dozens of states are throwing toddler-style tantrums about the rules and expectations of the No Child Left Behind Act - notable among them Connecticut, which plans to sue the federal government on grounds that the law is an "unfunded mandate."

The Bush administration's olive branch is a pledge of a "new, common-sense approach" to compliance and "additional flexibility" on testing and accountability for states that have made progress on NCLB's goal: closing the gap between the academic achievement of poor and minority students and their wealthier, whiter

Does this new flexibility mean that adult interests will again trump the needs of children? It's looking that way.

On the positive side, the Bush administration's proposal - flexible means in return for demonstrated results - is a proven management precept. We should also praise U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and her team for learning from experience instead of stubbornly clinging to NCLB rigidities that may be unworkable and interfere with reforms that were already succeeding in some states.

And yet. It appears that most of the new flexibility will take the form of modifications to be negotiated state by state. In other words, the department may bring new rules into negotiations, but states have no inherent right to do anything different. They must still ask for waivers, exemptions and modifications, and the feds can still say yea or nay or jerk them around for months.

The Education Department's approach to state exceptions and waiver requests has been strikingly uneven. The department has been tough with litigious Connecticut and, of all places, George W. Bush's and Margaret Spellings' own Texas. But it's been lax with North Dakota, alternated between stern and accommodating with Utah and compromised with California.

States do differ greatly in their ardor for, and success in, reforming schools and closing learning gaps. But this approach invites politics rather than the needs of kids to dominate such decisions and threatens to turn a nationwide reform into a mixed bag of disparate state schemes.

This danger grows more vivid in the department's dealings with Connecticut, whose officials have all but declared open war on Uncle Sam. First the attorney general threatened to file the first federal lawsuit against NCLB as a whole. Then state Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg twisted Secretary Spellings' reluctance to show flexibility into a personal attack on the teachers of the Constitution State. After much fuss, including an intervention by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Sternberg and Spellings finally met face-to-face - but it appears that neither blinked nor flexed.

Just imagine for a moment what could happen if all this energy were instead spent on closing Connecticut's large and persistent black/white achievement gaps rather than word duels with the feds.

NCLB contains some important core ideas that many states and districts find onerous to implement or simply don't agree with. Public school choice and highly qualified teachers are prime examples. They're worth defending. Yet recent federal accommodations with New York City (on public school choice) and several states (beginning with North Dakota) on teachers are not encouraging.

State education chiefs and governors are predictably grateful for the promise of NCLB flexibility, but so are school boards and teacher unions. If the kids had a Washington lobby, I doubt it would be as pleased. But of course, nobody represents them.

Key members of Congress aren't thrilled with the department's stance, either. John Boehner and George Miller, chairman and ranking Democrat on the House education committee and major NCLB architects, issued an unusual response to the Spellings plan. Though polite, its authors were wary of a "smorgasbord of different waivers."

Boehner and Miller summarized their most important point thus: "If the law is implemented with too much variety from state to state, the progress we are making on boosting achievement and improving accountability will be cut short. We cannot allow our students to pay this price."

Commissioner Sternberg, Attorney General Blumenthal, are you listening?

Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

— Chester Finn Jr.
Hartford Courant


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