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NCLB Outrages

Most States Fail Demands in Education Law

Ohanian Comment: Given the corporate underpinnings of NCLB (Documented in Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?), Secretary Spellings quip has special meaning: “I want states to know that Congress and the president mean business on
the law."
Mean business, indeed.

by Sam Dillon

Most states failed to meet federal requirements that all teachers be
“highly qualified” in core teaching fields and that state programs for
testing students be up to standards by the end of the past school year,
according to the federal government.

The deadline was set by the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s
effort to make all American students proficient in reading and math by
2014. But the Education Department found that no state had met the
deadline for qualified teachers, and it gave only 10 states full
approval of their testing systems.

Faced with such findings, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who
took office promising flexible enforcement of the law, has toughened her
stance, leaving several states in danger of losing parts of their
federal aid.

In the past few weeks, Ms. Spellings has flatly rejected as inadequate
the testing systems in Maine and Nebraska. She has also said that nine
states are so far behind in providing highly qualified teachers that
they may face sanctions, and she has accused California of failing to
provide federally required alternatives to troubled schools. California
could be fined as much as $4.25 million.

The potential fines are far higher than any the Education Department has
levied over the law, and officials in several states, already upset with
many of the law’s provisions, have privately expressed further anger
over the threat of fines. But Ms. Spellings faces pressure for firm
enforcement of the law from a broad array of groups, including
corporations and civil rights organizations.

“In the early part of her tenure, Secretary Spellings seemed more
interested in finding reasons to waive the law’s requirements than to
enforce them,” said Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School
Choice, a group based in Phoenix that supports vigorous enforcement of
provisions that give students the right to transfer from failing
schools. “More recently, she seems intent on holding states’ feet to the

In an interview, Ms. Spellings acknowledged her shift in emphasis.

“I want states to know that Congress and the president mean business on
the law,” she said. She has stressed that message in part, she said,
because the deadlines, which expired this month, were not met, and
because lawmakers have been asking her whether states are meeting the
law’s requirements.

“I’m enforcing the law — does that make me tough?” she said. “Last year
it was, ‘We’re marching together toward the deadline,’ but now it’s time
for, ‘Your homework is due.’ ”

Douglas D. Christensen, the Nebraska education commissioner, has accused
Ms. Spellings and her subordinates of treating Nebraska in a
“mean-spirited, arbitrary and heavy-handed way” after their announcement
on June 30 that the state’s testing system was “nonapproved” and that
they intended to withhold $127,000 in federal money.

In an interview in Lincoln, Neb., Mr. Christensen said he first realized
the administration’s attitude had changed in April, when Raymond Simon,
deputy education secretary, addressed most of the 50 state school
superintendents at a gathering in Washington.

“Ray went on a 12-minute diatribe of ‘You folks just ain’t getting it
done’ and said the department would be strictly interpreting the law
from here on,” Mr. Christensen said.

Mr. Simon disputed that account — “I’m not a diatribe type of guy,” he
said — but acknowledged that he had spoken bluntly.

“I tried to emphasize that we continue to be partners,” Mr. Simon said,
“but that there are some things we cannot be flexible on.”

Mr. Bush signed the act into law in January 2002. Under his first
education secretary, Rod Paige
legislators, educators and teachers unions criticized the law’s many
rules and what they said was its overemphasis on standardized testing.

After Ms. Spellings took office in January 2005, she allowed some states
to renegotiate the ways they enforced the law, and on major issues she
offered ways to comply that prevented thousands of schools from being
designated as failing.

Her efforts softened the outcry from states. But they brought criticism
from corporate executives who hoped the law would shake up schools to
protect American competitiveness. Criticism also came from civil rights
groups that wanted the law to eliminate educational disparities between
whites and minorities, and from groups angry that although the law
required districts to help students in failing schools transfer out,
only 1 percent of eligible students had done so.

Some experts say most parents do not want to remove children from
neighborhood schools. But others say districts have subverted the
program, partly by informing parents about their options too late.

Mr. Bolick’s group, the Alliance for School Choice, used a similar
argument in a complaint filed this year against the Los Angeles Unified
School District, where 250,000 students were eligible for transfers in
2005-6, but only about 500 successfully transferred. That complaint
generated considerable news coverage and moved Ms. Spellings to action.

On May 15, she wrote every state, linking the “unacceptably low”
participation in transfer programs to the “poor and uneven quality” of
many districts’ implementation. “We are prepared to take significant
enforcement action,” she said.

At the California Department of Education, Diane Levin, the state’s No
Child Left Behind administrator, said she had assumed that California
was on solid ground because a federal review of its enforcement of the
law was ending positively.

But then California received a letter from Ms. Spellings’s office
demanding extensive new documentation by Aug. 15 on the transfer
programs in the state’s 20 largest districts. Officials warned
California that if the documentation proved inadequate, the government
would withhold part of the $700 million the state was to receive this
fall for high-poverty schools, said Ms. Spellings’s spokesman, Kevin

Ms. Levin said California felt whipsawed. “We’re doing everything the
law asks us to do,” she said, “which in a state this size is a huge
amount of work, and we’re treated like we’re doing nothing.”

Dozens of other states have also felt the tougher enforcement.

In May, federal officials ruled that nine states were so far from
meeting the teacher qualification provision that they could lose federal
money. Ms. Spellings said she would decide on the penalties after
August, when states must outline plans for getting 100 percent of
teachers qualified.

At the end of June, Henry L. Johnson, an assistant secretary of
education, wrote to 34 states, including New York and New Jersey, saying
that their tests had major problems and that they must provide new
documentation during a period of mandatory oversight.

Dr. Johnson warned some states that federal money might be withheld. And
he rejected the testing programs in Maine and Nebraska. His letter to
Maine said $114,000 would be withheld unless the state could change
Washington’s mind.

Nebraska is the only state allowed to meet the testing requirements with
separate exams written by teachers in its 250 districts rather than with
one statewide test.

Dr. Johnson’s letter to Nebraska said that although locally written
tests were permissible, the state had not shown it was holding all
districts to a high standard.

Before announcing that decision, Dr. Johnson visited the Papillion-La
Vista School District, south of Omaha.

Harlan H. Metschke, Papillion’s superintendent, said he had told Mr.
Johnson that Nebraska’s tests helped teachers focus on students’
learning needs, unlike standardized tests, which compared students from
one school with another.

“But federal officials have the mentality that there has to be one state
test,” Mr. Metschke said.

— Sam Dillon
New York Times


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