'No Child Left Behind' should be left behind
Without overstating the situation, this new federal law, intended to become the coast-to-coast standard for public schools, has deteriorated to become a state-by-state hodgepodge of what have been called ‘bargains and treaties’ dependant upon the overriding political pedigree of an individual state.
By Tom Gaffey, State Senator
As local school districts across Connecticut finalize their budgets in coming weeks the topic of public education policy and funding its priorities will once again be front-and-center. Topics ranging from class size and student-teacher ratio to curriculum refinement and standardized testing will be debated.
Public education and municipal officials will try and determine the best way to teach our students, how to assess their achievement, and how much to pay for that education and assessment. Looming large over all this, casting as much fear as shadow, is the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and all of its ominous provisions and penalties.
Incredibly, it has become all-too-clear those provisions and penalties have become a moving target, frustrating educators and administrators at the local level and exasperating my colleagues and me at the state level. Without overstating the situation, this new federal law, intended to become the coast-to-coast standard for public schools, has deteriorated to become a state-by-state hodgepodge of what have been called ‘bargains and treaties’ dependant upon the overriding political pedigree of an individual state.
According to a recent story in the Boston Globe, more than one in four American schools is already considered a ‘failing’ school by NCLB standards. That translates into two things: more and more states seeking negotiated immunity from NCLB and a more and more fractured ‘federal’ education policy.
Consider these examples. In Florida, the existing, in-state system for evaluating the performance of public schools can be used to exempt certain high-performing schools from NCLB provisions. Texas was granted permission to exempt 30% of its special education students from NCLB testing requirements. And in Nebraska, education officials were allowed to maintain their in-state assessment regimen outright.
Connecticut, by contrast, applied with the federal government for comparable waivers, citing exceptional results with its every-other-year testing cycle and the overall performance of its students on national aptitude tests. Connecticut’s application was not only denied and the waivers not granted, but Connecticut’s patriotism was questioned in the process when Margaret Spellings, the Secretary of the United States Department of Education, dismissed Connecticut’s objections to NCLB as ‘un-American.’
Connecticut is now pursuing a remedy through the courts. The state's lawsuit argues that NCLB, described deridingly in a disparaging report issued by the Harvard Civil Rights Project as, ‘the major domestic policy accomplishment of the Bush administration,’ amounts to an unfunded federal mandate, the provisions of which cost Connecticut more than it receives in federal aid. At this writing, the state’s case is still pending.
But deeply disturbing facts remain. The stakes are exceptionally high--schools that don’t measure up can lose funding, accreditation, and even have their faculty removed--and application of the law is arbitrary and capricious at best. Again, according to the Harvard Civil Rights Project, NCLB is, ‘the most expansive assertion of federal power over schools in American history.’ Any attempt at such sweeping reform, especially in education, which is historically the purview of each individual state, is going to be impractical and unwieldy.
My sense is that before NCLB collapses under its own weight into a state-by-state free-for-all, the federal government ought to acknowledge the shortcomings built into the five-year-old law and convene a task force comprised of local educators and state officials. It is only in this way the law can be refocused to provide productive education for our public school students with minimal regulatory overhead, and sufficient funding to provide adequate administrative oversight.
Only a recommitment of this caliber would truly lend itself to the stated objective: no child left behind.
Tom Gaffey, State Senator
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES