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Bush Proposes Broadening the No Child Left Behind Act

By Diana Jean Schemo

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24—The Bush administration called on Wednesday for an array of changes to the president’s signature education law. The proposals would give local school officials new powers to override both teachers’ contracts and state limits on charter schools in the case of persistently failing schools.

Margaret Spellings, the education secretary, said local school officials should have more control.
The proposals are part of the administration’s blueprint for revising the No Child Left Behind Act, which Congress is scheduled to renew this year. Margaret Spellings, the education secretary, said the goal was to provide students in failing schools with other options and “to make sure we have our best personnel in the neediest places.”

President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002. It requires schools to test students in reading and math annually in grades three to eight, and establishes progressively more severe penalties for schools that fail to make adequate progress, including shutting the schools altogether.

Administration officials said there were currently about 1,800 of these schools across the country, where students have failed to meet state targets for reading and math for more than five years. But they said that loopholes in the current law allowed them to avoid serious action indefinitely.

“We all have to answer the question what are we going to do about that,” Ms. Spellings said in a telephone news conference. “This is the president’s answer to, Is the promise of No Child Left Behind real?”

She said that allowing local officials to close failing schools and replace them with charter schools would give children new options. Charter schools are publicly financed but freed from many of the regulations that apply to traditional neighborhood schools.

In 26 states, including New York, there are limits on how many charter schools can be opened. Critics point to a lack of consistent research showing charter schools are any more effective than traditional public schools in raising achievement.

Ms. Spellings said local superintendents would also be helped if they could transfer teachers in their districts to help improve poorly performing schools, even if union contracts banned such moves.

Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, derided the proposal as “silly on its face,” adding, “I have a feeling they’re setting up a straw man just to knock it down.”

While allowing for “areas of agreement” with the president’s blueprint, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the education committee, said he was “disappointed that the administration has proposed circumventing state law” with its proposal on charter schools.

In the House, Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who is chairman of the education committee, rebuffed the administration’s move to allow superintendents to override contracts, which he called a “proposal to gut collective-bargaining agreements.”

Separately, he rejected the administration’s call for school vouchers. President Bush proposed, as he has every year since taking office, taxpayer-financed vouchers to allow children in struggling schools to transfer to private schools.

“Private school vouchers,” Mr. Miller said, “have been rejected in the past, and nothing has changed to make them acceptable now. They are the same bad idea they have always been.”

Other administration proposals seemed likely to be more acceptable, among them: a call for a federal fund that would give extra pay to teachers who are most effective in raising children’s test scores, or who agree to teach in the neediest schools; and allowing districts with failing schools to first offer children tutoring before allowing them to transfer.

The administration also proposed requiring states to publicize how their students perform on a national exam, known as the nation’s report card, side by side with student performance on state exams. The move is intended to pressure states to make their own standards more rigorous.

Congress will consider the president’s blueprint as it takes up hearings to renew the law this spring. But with the presidential race taking shape, it is not at all certain that Congress will complete the job this year.

In moving to update the law, Congress and the administration are threading their way through discontent from across the political spectrum, from teachers unions upset that the law’s testing requirements are dictating what teachers do in the classroom to conservatives who say education should remain a purely local matter.

Michael J. Petrilli, an Education Department official in Mr. Bush’s first term who recently called the law “fundamentally flawed,” said the administration’s proposals represent “a pretty decent repair attempt.”

“It’s 50 percent stay the course, 30 percent tweak and tuck, and 20 percent bold new ideas,” Mr. Petrilli said.

He added, “Not bad for a president with 33 percent approval ratings, though the package as a whole has about a zero percent chance of getting through Congress.”

— Diana Jean Schemo
New York Times


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