Inside the Revolt Over Bush's School Rules: The reddest of all states is leading the charge
Most Americans don't know about the Utah War of 1857-58. President James Buchanan sent thousands of federal troops into the desert to install his own, non-Mormon Governor. The people of Utah did not respond well. They spooked the federal livestock and burned the federal wagons. They incinerated 368,000 lbs. of military provisions.
If that seems irrelevant to the current debate over education policy, you must not be from Utah. "Here we are 150 years later," said Republican representative Steven Mascaro during floor debate in the Utah legislature on April 19. "Washington's marching in with the education army ... You know what? I'd just as soon they take the stinking money and go back to Washington with it and let us resolve our education problems ourselves."
And so Utah, the state that backed President George W. Bush more resolutely than any other in last fall's election, became the first to formally defy his proudest domestic achievement. The legislature passed a bill that lets Utah schools ignore the 2002 No Child Left Behind education law if its mandates conflict with state priorities or require state money to meet them. "They didn't bring tea to drop overboard, but that's about all that was missing," says a satisfied Patti Harrington, state superintendent of public instruction.
The next day the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers' union, with school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont, filed suit against the Federal Government, claiming that No Child is severely underfunded. Maine is considering joining. Connecticut is crafting its own suit, and other states may sign on. And then there's Texas: Bush's home state was fined $444,282 last month (out of a $1.1 billion federal allowance) by the U.S. Department of Education for missing a deadline to report school rankings. Texas continues to violate the law in other ways.
For three years, teachers and politicians have wailed about No Child, which requires rigid reform and testing regimens in exchange for federal money for low-income students. Critics say the policy is underfunded, overbearing and unfair. Now they are taking action. And the law may not survive intact, despite the Administration's vow to fight to the end.
The timing is ironic. Recent studies suggest that the No Child reforms may actually be working. Of the 49 states surveyed by the independent Center on Education Policy last year, 36 reported that student achievement was improving. Virtually all the 314 school districts surveyed said they were providing more instruction to low-achieving students and more professional development for teachers.
Currently 6,000 schools (13% of those receiving federal money) have been deemed "in need of improvement" under No Child. But that was the reason for the law in the first place: too many schools were shamelessly letting poor and minority kids fall behind. "Some of these schools haven't been performing for 15 to 20 years, but it was one of the best-kept secrets in most communities," says House Democrat George Miller of California, who helped write No Child. The smartest thing the law does is to require schools to separate out the scores of at-risk children instead of lumping all kids together for a sunnier average.
But the timing of the rebellion is no coincidence. The law's provisions are gradual, so it is only now that many states are beginning to feel its effects. Meanwhile, after three years of dramatically raising education spending, Congress just passed a 2006 budget that cuts funding $2.2 billion. So the Governors are angry. And next year 36 of their seats will be up for grabs, which only encourages more tough talk about No Child. Says Patty Sullivan, director of the Center on Education Policy: "Something's going to give here."
THE MOVEMENT TO IMPOSE standards and accountability on public schools began long before Bush took office. In 1983, a landmark federal study, A Nation at Risk, warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future." Politicians dutifully increased education spending, but no one--not Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton--had the political nerve to back up expectations for improvement with consequences if schools failed to measure up.
The 1994 education-reform law "required" states to develop performance standards. And if they didn't, that was O.K. too. Just to make doubly sure the law didn't trouble anyone, Congress inserted a short but unusual paragraph promising that states would not have to use their own money to carry out federal policy. Of course, it didn't matter much, since the policy wasn't enforced anyway. By 1997, only 17 states had set up ways to assess performance.
In 2000, George W. Bush came into office determined to follow through on a campaign promise to get serious about education accountability. Emboldened by his experience as Governor of Texas, he introduced an ambitious testing plan (which borrowed heavily from Democratic proposals made during the Clinton Administration). The proposal churned through grueling negotiations in Congress. But, with surprisingly little debate, the final version included the 1994 provision promising that states would not have to spend their own funds.
Flash forward to today, when the teachers' union has cited that very clause in its suit against the government. "I don't think you have to be a lawyer to say what that paragraph means," says Bob Chanin, general counsel for the NEA. "We'd be delighted to take on [the Department of Education]. If we get down to the merits, we think we clearly have the better of the case."
It's tricky, though, to nail down what states are spending because of No Child--and what they would have spent anyway to live up to their own laws. School districts don't break down the costs that way--and many of them are prone to exaggeration. In any case, the testing required by No Child is not all that pricey, but other requirements--to increase teacher training and offer after-school tutoring to children who are struggling--do add up.
But why are so many kids and teachers performing below par? As states like to point out, education is their responsibility. "Why weren't they educating kids in the first place?" asks Chester Finn, an Assistant Secretary of Education under Reagan and current president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "Some states were doing a reasonably conscientious job--Florida, Massachusetts. But I have no sympathy for states like Utah that, as best I can tell, were not lifting a finger."
Utah's children get average scores on national tests, but an embarrassing gap separates white and minority children (as is also the case in Connecticut, another leader of the rebellion). Utah spends less money per student ($4,900 a year) than any other state. New York and New Jersey spend twice as much, even after adjusting for regional cost differences, according to Education Week. This year Education Week gave Utah a D+ for its efforts to improve teacher quality.
It's true that the No Child law has problems. It prescribes one treatment for schools with wildly different ailments. And it does not reward improvement. While Margaret Spellings, the new Secretary of Education, said last month that she will allow more flexibility, she has yet to clarify what she means. But whatever happens, states still seem to have significant autonomy. Each can choose its own test--and set its own passing score.
The agitation over No Child is not just about money, most experts agree. The Federal Government pays only about 8% of schooling costs. So changing the federal contibution has only so much impact. In fact, money--from any source--is not a panacea. Over the past 50 years, the U.S. has tripled per-pupil spending in constant dollars, to roughly $10,800 a child, more than almost any other nation. And yet it gets average or below-average results compared with other First World countries.
The uproar is also, partly, about pride. No one likes to be labeled failing. Teachers "are focused on making sure that their school doesn't make the watch list ... so that their communities aren't shamed," says Linda Nelson, president of the Iowa State Education Association.
In Utah, one catalyst for the rebellion was the shaming of Amelia Earhart Elementary School in Provo. Last year the school failed to meet No Child benchmarks because of low scores by just three students with disabilities. Principal Rosemarie Smith remembers the day she got the news. "When principals get the results, they automatically look at the upper-righthand corner to see whether their school made adequate yearly progress. I looked at that space and about died." There were no significant financial consequences, but the failure cut deeply. "We're in an upper-middle-class area. We have 95% attendance at parent-teacher conferences," Smith says. "Parents were flabbergasted." She took her story to a state representative, who ultimately introduced Utah's protest bill.
For now, states are daring Spellings to make the next move. It could come any day, with new, looser guidelines. (Educators would be thrilled if Spellings started rewarding schools that showed progress over time among the same children instead of the same grade levels.)
But the federal rebuttal could also come in the form of hefty fines. Texas, for example, could be slapped with far larger penalties. It is currently exempting 9% of students from taking grade-level tests, claiming they are special ed. The Education Department allows only 3%. "Texas is an outlier," warned Spellings, who is from Texas, in April. "I intend to take a very strong approach." As for Utah, the state risks losing up to $76 million in federal funds if it defies No Child, which it looks likely to do under its new law.
The ultimate affront to the Feds has yet to happen. Although any state can gracefully exit from No Child by simply declining federal funds, no state has done so. Three individual districts--in Illinois, Connecticut and Vermont--have opted out, but none had much money at stake. Evanston, Ill., considered doing so; then its board decided that would send the wrong signal to minority and special-ed kids. In other words, it's still politically incorrect to go against No Child. But that may change if the uprising continues.
President Bush defended the law at a press conference last week. "I will do everything I can to prevent people from unwinding it," he said. But the defection of the reddest of red states must be disconcerting. "Utah follows President Bush on his espoused values regarding family and religion," says Harrington, the state superintendent. "But you, Federal Government, are not going to point to our schools and call them failing or say they need improvement. We won't allow it."
If history is any judge, the outcome will be mixed. The Utah War was bloodless in the end. Buchanan did install his own Governor. And then he pardoned everyone in the state. All was forgiven, if not forgotten.
--With reporting by Melissa August/ Washington, Nadia Mustafa/ New York and Maggie Sieger/ Chicago
Amanda Ripley & Sonja Steptoe
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES