Bush faces growing revolt over education policy
Ohanian Comment: Yes, I guess we can be glad that people are finally speaking out against NCLB, but I fear it's only skin deep--surface niggling. There doesn't seem to be any talk about the deep purpose of the bill--nor the deep damage it does.
HARTFORD, Connecticut (Reuters) -- Daria Plummer, a bespectacled suburban school teacher, is not your typical activist but she is now on the front line in a revolt against President George W. Bush's signature domestic policy.
As a veteran teacher in the first state to challenge Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education law in court, Plummer voices the frustrations of those who oppose the policy's strict, federally driven testing regime.
"More and more we are living in fear of the tests," said Plummer, 62, from her classroom in a middle-class Connecticut suburb. "We are taking the child out of the equation."
As schools open this week, 47 states are in some "stage of rebellion" against the 3-year-old policy, according to a study by the Civil Society Institute, a nonpartisan advocacy group. About 20 states may opt out and forego the funding.
Connecticut, taking the strongest stand yet in its lawsuit accusing Washington of failing to pay for the testing and its programs, expects other states to follow its lead, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in an interview.
He likened the White House to a bully in the playground.
"Sometimes one person has to stand up to them," he said.
Education reform has been critical to Bush's support among minorities in an education system where only two-thirds of teenagers graduate from high school, a proportion that slides to 50 percent for black Americans and Hispanics.
New Jersey and Maine are likely to launch their own lawsuits. Utah passed a measure trying to overturn the federal law, while the National Education Association, a teacher's union, also has filed suit.
"The big question is will the Bush administration be able to defuse this political opposition," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington.
Race against time
"It's a race against time over whether the Bush administration will be able to administer the act more sensibly so that people do not get so angry that the act will be overthrown by court or rewritten or substantially amended by Congress," Jennings added. The law is up for review in 2007.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a speech in Chicago last week the law was working, citing data showing reading scores for 9-year-olds up more over the last five years than in all the years from 1971 to 1999, though some dispute whether this reflects the policy.
At the heart of the law are yearly tests in math and reading. Those scores and other variables like graduation rates can lead to sanctions against poor-performing schools.
"It is a matter of good intentions gone awry," said James Weaver, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a union representing 115,000 teachers. "Funding has been an issue, and it ends up being a lot of bureaucracy."
Critics call some provisions unreasonable, such as one that punishes schools where disabled students or children without native English score lower than other students.
Blumenthal says it is an unfunded mandate that leaves Connecticut lacking $41.6 million to comply with the law.
Spellings has said states critical of the law simply fear the results -- a statement that riles Connecticut Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg, whose state has the highest graduation rate in the country.
Connecticut also has the nation's worst gap in academic achievement between poor and richer children, with 18 percent of low-income 9-year-olds proficient in reading, against 53 percent of those who are not poor.
Sternberg says that reflects the extreme wealth and poverty in Connecticut, where Greenwich ranks among America's wealthiest cities and others such as Hartford are among the nation's poorest.
Such gaps alarm Cynthia Brown, the author of a joint study by the Center for American Progress and Institute for America's future that reckons a crisis looms unless America overhauls its schools and invests $325 billion over 10 years.
That would only boost the education portion of the federal budget from today's 3 percent to 4 percent.
Her report found that by age 9, low-income students read on a level three years behind their better-off peers. Nationwide, only 15 percent of low-income fourth-graders can read proficiently, compared 41 percent for non-poor students.
But money isn't everything, says Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, whose work shows that only half of all U.S. high school graduates have done the studies needed to apply to college.
"We have doubled per pupil spending over the last three decades, adjusted for inflation, and yet student achievement has not improved," he said. "It is crisis now more than it used to be in that the skills the world demands are now higher.
"A quarter of the kids who failed to graduate high school in 1970 could expect entry into the middle class," he said. "That's different from today."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES