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NCLB Outrages

For Bush, "No Child" a Hard Act to Follow: Debate Growing as Education Package Nears Expiration



"If I do say so modestly, it is the jewel in the crown of his domestic
achievements," said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was a
White House policy adviser when the law was enacted.

Who has every known Margaret Spellings to be diffident? Discreet? Humble?

I hope all the good progressives who have told me they can't join Educator Roundtable because they know Senator Kennedy will listen to [their] reasoned objections to NCLB, note that he is "plotting strategy" with Margaret.

Progressives have an opportunity and an obligation to defeat NCLB, but they are too busy practicing hubris to step up to the challenge.

by David Nitkin

Washington -- President Bush is locked in a struggle to preserve his
signature education initiative as Republicans and Democrats press for
key changes in the law that ushered in an era of high-stakes testing and
strict standards.

The No Child Left Behind Act took effect in 2002 after receiving the
kind of bipartisan support that has all but evaporated since. It will
expire this year unless it is renewed or extended.

With his time in office waning, Bush regularly refers to the education
reform act as one of his most notable achievements, and one that he
hopes will endure.

But his push this year to renew the law has made little progress. The
administration is redoubling its lobbying efforts - including enlisting
first lady Laura Bush - against opposition from both ends of the
political spectrum.

"If I do say so modestly, it is the jewel in the crown of his domestic
achievements," said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was a
White House policy adviser when the law was enacted. "Obviously, he is
very committed."

Spellings plotted legislative strategy last week with Sen. Edward M.
Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, the
Democrats who chair Congress' education committees, and senior
Republican lawmakers.

"If you care about resources, this is the time to act. If you care about
competitiveness, and high schools, like Bill Gates does and our
governors do, this is the time to act," Spellings said in an interview.
"I'm very concerned that if we don't act this year, having this sort of
thing in play in the middle of a presidential campaign becomes much more
difficult."

The debate carries important consequences for schools in Maryland and
elsewhere.

Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick praises the
accountability goals contained in the law.

With more families moving from state to state, the public is entitled to
a "level of transparency" so they can judge how schools are performing,
she said.

But teachers, principals and parents in Baltimore and throughout the
state criticize what they say is a lack of flexibility imposed by the
measure. The day after Worcester County's Michelle Hammond was honored
at the White House as Maryland's teacher of the year in April, she
joined a news conference to decry the absence of teacher involvement in
developing policy options.

No Child Left Behind has imposed stricter qualifications on teachers and
required that schools face tough sanctions, such as being taken over by
states or private companies, if they fail to make yearly progress. The
law aims to make every student - regardless of race, learning ability or
native language - proficient in reading and math by 2014.

The act has been studied incessantly over the past five years, with no
shortage of ideas for changes.

Some educators want subjects such as science, history and geography
added to the testing regimen, so their disciplines get more attention.

Others want to make sure that schools are not automatically labeled as
failing if they miss the mark because of a small number of non-native
English speakers or special needs students.

State officials say they hope they'll get more money to pay for
administering the law. A recent analysis by the independent Center on
Education Policy found that eight of 10 school districts nationwide have
been forced to spend more money on bureaucratic requirements not paid
for by the federal government.

The White House is open to making changes, and officials say they want
to provide more flexibility and a stronger focus on high schools. The
administration has not proposed specific refinements - leaving that to
Congress - and Bush warned in a speech this year that "we will not allow
this good piece of legislation to be weakened."

But the president has his work cut out for him. Conservatives say the
law is an unneeded federal encroachment into an arena that has
traditionally been a state and local domain.

"My colleagues are hearing nothing positive about No Child Left Behind
in their districts," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican.

His plan to let states opt out of the law has garnered support from more
than 60 Republican congressmen - some of whom voted for it five years ago.

"It may be OK in theory, but to get it mandated in Washington just is
not working," Hoekstra said.

Likewise, newly elected congressional Democrats have brought to
Washington concerns about an over-reliance on testing that is stripping
creativity from the classroom as schools focus on test preparation to
the exclusion of other subjects and activities.

"Most of us saw No Child Left Behind as incredibly cumbersome and
punitive," said Rep. Tim Walz, who taught high school geography before
coming to Washington, and whose wife is in charge of compliance with the
federal requirements in their Minnesota school district.

Still, few of those involved with the issue predict wholesale changes.
Kennedy and Miller, the congressional Democrats who were instrumental in
getting the law passed in 2001, are now in leadership positions and,
like Bush, view the education initiative as part of their legacy.

With education an important topic with voters and several studies
showing that increased testing and accountability has raised student
performance, there could be a heavy political price to pay for those who
vote to undo the main principles of the law - such as splitting out test
scores for minority, special education and non-native English-speaking
students in an effort to address performance gaps, analysts say.

"They are not going to change the core of the act," said Tom Loveless,
head of education policy at the Brookings Institution. Overall, that's
"a good thing," he said.

Frederick M. Hess, an education expert at the American Enterprise
Institute, said lawmakers and the administration do not appear ready to
address flaws in the initiative.

By setting an all-but-impossible goal of having all children proficient
in math and reading by 2014, the legislation encourages states to set
low standards and fudge numbers, he said, while doing little to make
sure that children are learning.

"To my mind, it makes sense to hold a school - whether it is in
Baltimore or Boston - accountable not for having children where we wish
they would be in a perfect world, but for whether that school, or that
teacher, is ensuring that those students are making a year's worth of
progress in a year's time," he said.

Even some of the law's staunchest supporters, such as Grasmick,
acknowledge that changes are needed. She says she wants not only more
money, but emphasis on principals as a critical component of good schools.

And the scoring system for schools needs to be improved, she said, to
recognize schools that are making strides but do not meet the thresholds
set out in the law.

Democrats will continue to push for more money to address concerns that
the measure imposed federal requirements but did not provide enough
resources to pay for them.

The Bush administration has asked for $2.53 billion in additional
education funding next year.

Democratic lawmakers will likely try to push that figure higher. Many
Democrats say Bush reneged on a pledge to persuade a
Republican-controlled Congress to provide more funding for education.
While the federal share of education money rose early in the Bush
administration, it has declined since, and the amount of federal money
provided under the act each year has fallen short of the maximum
authorized under the law.

For its part, the White House is enlisting Laura Bush, a former school
librarian, who has invited groups of lawmakers for coffee at the White
House to discuss the merits of legislation.

"I've never known her to get involved in legislative initiatives," said
Hoekstra. "Maybe they recognize they are in a whole lot more trouble
than what they anticipated."

— David Nitkin
Baltimore Sun
2007-06-18


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