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NCLB Outrages

Democrats Broaden Attack on NCLB

It's about time.

WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential candidates, encouraged by teachers' unions and growing public doubts about a bipartisan education law, are widening their attacks on what President Bush has touted as a major domestic accomplishment and calling for fundamental changes in its provisions.

For months, the Democratic mantra has been that the Bush administration shortchanged states by billions of dollars for implementing the federal education law known as the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires local school districts to test third- through eighth-graders in English and math, raise the quality of teaching forces, and impose sanctions on schools that fail to improve student achievement.

But as the first nominating contests approach, the leading Democratic candidates -- most of whom voted for the legislation -- also have begun to criticize the accountability requirements as too burdensome on school districts. Some say they would undo pieces of the sweeping law.

"The standards are so ridiculous that every single public school in America will be deemed to be a school in need of improvement or a failing school by 2013," former Vermont governor Howard Dean said in a teleconference yesterday. He said the law, which he has pledged to dismantle, was "making education in America worse, not better."

Retired Army General Wesley K. Clark has called the law's first two years a failure. Senators John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina said they want to change the way student achievement is measured. And Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri proposed giving states more latitude in testing.

Recent polls indicate that approval of Bush's handling of education has fallen to the lowest level in his presidency.

Yesterday in northern St. Louis, Bush defended the law at an urban school. He said the school had dramatically improved reading scores among students and wisely spent federal education funding, which he said has increased 41 percent for low-income schools since he took office.

"I'm here to congratulate this school and to really hold you up for the nation to see what is possible when you raise the bar, when you're not afraid to hold people to account, when you empower your teachers and your principals to achieve the objective we want," Bush told parents at Pierre Laclede Elementary School.

In November, the National Education Association, the teachers' union with 2.7 million members, ran newspaper ads in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, urging candidates to make the No Child Left Behind law an election issue.

"The more people know about this particular law, the less they like it," NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons said. She called a key requirement -- that all elementary and middle-school children in public schools be proficient in math and English by 2014 -- unworkable and absurd.

Indeed, there are signs that the growing pains of implementing No Child Left Behind are spreading beyond school administrators and teachers to Republican and Democratic legislators, who in some states are balking at the new federal mandates in the midst of budget crises that have forced them to cut state funding for education.

Meanwhile, parents are receiving the first reports that their public schools have failed to make "adequate yearly progress" under the law. Data collected by the publication Education Week show that more than 23,000 schools did not reach state proficiency standards in the 2002-03 school year, and 5,200 had missed the target for two years. Under federal law, those schools, deemed "in need of improvement," must give students the option to transfer to a better-performing school. Those on the list for three years also must provide private tutoring.

"This law is starting to fray because it's starting to hit home," said William J. Mathis, an education finance professor at the University of Vermont and school superintendent in Brandon, Vt.

The White House has reason to fear political fallout. In an ABC News/ Washington Post poll last month, Bush's approval rating on education was 47 percent, the first time a majority of Americans did not have a favorable view of the president's handling of the issue and a stunning drop from 71 percent approval in January 2002, when Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act.

"I have long suspected that the day Bush signed the act was the day he would get the most credit for improving education," said John F. Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit group that advocates for public schools. "It is very difficult for the federal government to bring about change in public schooling, where the tradition is for local control."

Determined to end the Democrats' traditional advantage on education, particularly with female voters in the suburbs, Bush made the improvement of public schools a campaign theme in 2000. He pledged unprecedented federal intervention to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, and tied an increase in federal funds to rigorous requirements for standardized testing and school accountability.

Polls showed it was a winning issue for Bush. Democrats, led by Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, saw a way to target more federal money to public schools in low-income neighborhoods, and voted almost unanimously for the legislation in late 2001.

Within months, the bipartisan comity collapsed, as Democrats charged that Bush reneged on at least $6 billion in funds promised to implement the law and was saddling states with an "unfunded mandate."

Now Democratic candidates are going further and urging that the law's tough testing and accountability requirements be relaxed. Kerry, who voted for the bill, said he would end "one-size-fits-all" testing and assess students also on attendance and graduation rates. Edwards, who on Sunday called his vote for the legislation a mistake, would change the way student achievement is measured and review the law's provision for "highly qualified teachers" in every classroom by 2006. Clark has challenged the law's mandate that all students in a state, including those with learning disabilities and language barriers, be held to the same achievement standards.

As governor, Dean opposed No Child Left Behind and said Vermont would have to raise $80 million more from property taxes to implement it. Yesterday, he called the law an "intrusive mandate" and said Democratic candidates who voted for it were "co-opted" by Bush's agenda, which Dean says aims to "put public schools out of business."

Eugene W. Hickok, acting US deputy secretary of education, said Dean "doesn't get it" because he comes from a small, rural state without the challenges of a diverse student population. Hickok said it will be later this year before the results can be measured, and it is "too soon" to amend the law.

"Democrats don't own the education issue anymore, and they are trying to get it back," Hickok said. "So they are using irresponsible rhetoric . . . and pandering to the fears of hard-working educators who are facing change and nervous about it."

He said Bush will campaign aggressively on education, including a stop at a Tennessee school Thursday, the law's second anniversary. "The president will take on the myths and he will take on the criticism, which in many cases is unfounded, unfair, and misinformed," Hickok said. "No one is arguing the law is perfect, but we will stand behind it."

— Mary Leonard
Democrats broaden attack on school law
Boston Globe


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