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Is No Child Left Behind working?

MARGARET WARNER: To pick up the debate over No Child Left Behind, we're joined by Eugene Hickok, the acting deputy secretary of Education, and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association. Welcome to you both.

Governor Vilsack, you just heard President Bush say that this law has made a difference around the country, a positive difference. John Edwards said it's been a disaster. From where you sit in Iowa, what impact has it had?

GOV. TOM VILSACK: Well, I'll tell you, there is no question that we need to make a real effort to assess and to create standards for our students and to have the goal of leaving no child behind. But the reality is that we have yet to see the impact of this legislation. The president mentioned test scores going up. I think that's more an effort of governors across the nation to reduce class sizes and get more quality teachers and focus efforts on early learning than it is on Leave No Child Behind. This is a proposal that's been underfunded from the beginning. It runs the risk of over identifying schools that are "failing." And I think in rural states like mine, there are real serious concerns about whether or not the penalties for failure can in fact be implemented successfully.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Hickok, let's first address the issue of whether ... do you have evidence that this law has led to an improvement in student performance?

EUGENE HICKOK: Already, yeah. I mean I will agree with the governor on the one point, and that is that it's way too soon to say that this law has been fully implemented and had the impact we think it will have. But the school that the president visited today and the one he visited on Monday were examples of schools, which in the first year of No Child Left Behind have seen improvements in test scores, and these were schools that really had some improving to do. The other point that I think we need to hit right on top is the funding issue. Lots of people talk about inadequate funding of No Child Left Behind. As the president mentioned in the piece, these are historic increases in federal dollars for education -- more increases in the first year of this ... first two years of this administration than the previous eight years under Bill Clinton. And I would also point out that right now, as we speak, there are close to $6 billion in federal taxpayer dollars the states haven't spent. They're sitting there waiting for them to spend it. So before you ask for more money let's spend what we've got.

Should federal funding increase?

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask the governor. You said it underfunded. What's your evidence of that?

GOV. TOM VILSACK: Well, the administration when they first proposed Leave No Child Behind made an authorization and a suggestion it would take $29 billion to fully implement. We are about $7 billion below where we need to be this year -- collectively about $17 billion. And you can't take this out of context. You have to look at other federal mandates that are also underfunded: Special education, where the federal government said many years ago they were going to fund 40 percent of the costs of special education, but we have 100 percent of the responsibility for this. In my state, if you take Leave No Child Behind and special education and lump them together, we could be underfunded to the extent of $30 million.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain to us, if you got the full funding that was under the authorization, what would Iowa use that for under No Child Left Behind?

GOV. TOM VILSACK: Well, we would use it for professional development of teachers. There's no question the law is correct that we need quality teachers in the classroom. But that costs money. You have to have time to devote to professional development. It's difficult with the limited budgets, with strains on state budgets for state resources to be dedicated to professional development. That's one thing. Secondly, we would provide assistance and greater staffing in some of the schools in terms of working with these youngsters who do in fact need more time and effort. I was in a school in Iowa with 100 percent free and reduced lunch students, that is having a very difficult time with the Leave No Child Behind mandates but still doing an incredible job. With additional resources, they could have staff and technology that would make even better progress.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that point?

EUGENE HICKOK: Well, you know, I think the argument for more money is sort of a constant argument in American education. I've never met a school board member -- I used to be one -- who stood there and said, "Please, we have enough money."

MARGARET WARNER: But let me just interrupt you for a second -- I mean, didn't the Democrats support this bill because of the authorization, the money that was promised at least they felt, that would go to these particularly poor districts or districts with a lot of disadvantaged students, as the governor's describing, and that the funding is substantially below what the authorization was by Congress?

EUGENE HICKOK: But I think if you look at the history of the way budgets are written in Washington, not just education budgets, but budgets by Democratic and Republican presidents, authorization levels were always higher than appropriation levels in every agency. That's the way Congress operates. You authorize a possible ceiling of spending and then you appropriate what's necessary.

MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying this is plenty of money?

EUGENE HICKOK: There's enough money. If you look at how much money the American taxpayer sends to schools, close to $500 billion now, it is hard for me to believe that an additional $6 billion, maybe a little bit more than 1 percent of the total, is going to make or break No Child Left Behind. What is needed is spending money smartly, not just spending more money.

MARGARET WARNER: And you don't think the governor has a point about there's not enough for teacher development?

EUGENE HICKOK: There are record increases in professional development in teacher quality in No Child Left Behind. One thing we've learned over the years is that school boards spend lots of money on professional development but have no way of knowing whether that that money is getting results.

The role of educational accountability standards

MARGARET WARNER: Governor, if you'll let me I'll jump from the money issue to the accountability issue, which is another one you raised, which is how these standards are going to be applied. What is the basic critique with the accountability standards?

GOV. TOM VILSACK: Well, one of the biggest problems with the accountability standards is it essentially lumps us all together. I mean there are significant differences between schools. And essentially if you've got a place where there are free and reduced lunch students, the Leave No Child Behind require us to have annual yearly progress. Well, for some students, that may be more or less difficult. For some school districts it may be more or less difficult. But the law really, for all intents and purposes, treats us all the same in that regard. And we can get penalized.

You could have a school district in essence, where 99 percent of the students are successful and 1 percent of the students are having difficulty, but progress is being made, but not as much progress as someone has defined and that school could be characterized as a failing school. And that just doesn't seem quite right. And then secondly, if you are decreed a failing school in areas where you may not have alternatives in terms of going to the neighborhood school down the street where the next school may be 25 or 30 miles, or 50 miles away, then what do you do?

And I appreciate that the secretary and the president believe that this is the right approach and that there are record amounts of resources, but it's also a record amount of mandates and requirements at a time when state budgets are suffering, at a time when we're still trying to deal with the fact that other aspects of our education budgets have been historically underfunded.

MARGARET WARNER: Go back to this accountability standards because this is a lot of the criticism. The first point the governor made, that you could have almost the whole student body doing very well, and if one small 1 or 2 percent weren't, the school could be failing, is that true?

EUGENE HICKOK: Well, first of all the idea of failing schools is not in the legislation. That's a very important point. You could have a very good school, the governor's correct, that, because of the performance of a number of students, maybe a small number of students, is labeled as not making adequate yearly progress, that's not the same thing as saying the school is failing. It is saying that when you disaggregate data and you see achievement gaps, you now have to do something about it. That's what this law is all about, getting at the achievement gap, which is something American public education has never done a good job of. The idea that somehow you have a standard accountability system that's one size fits all, again, I would argue that's pretty far from the truth.

You have 52 different accountability systems because of 50 states and two territories -- each of them custom-designed by the state. Iowa's accountability system is probably the most unique of all 52 because it reflects the uniqueness of Iowa's standard and assessment system. Within a state, that was the way Nebraska or Colorado designed their accountability system so the notion that somehow it is a federal intrusion, I think it's overstated. Certainly the infrastructure is there, but the way that infrastructure is built reflects the interests of the various states.

MARGARET WARNER: Governor, go back to that point about the sanctions now. I mean what happens if a school is not meeting, not progressing adequately or whatever the term of art is?

GOV. TOM VILSACK: Well, the ultimate sanction is that resources are withdrawn and someone else comes in and basically takes control of the school.

MARGARET WARNER: That's if it's failing, right?

GOV. TOM VILSACK: Right. And with all due respect, whether you call it not meeting an annual yearly progress or failing, the bottom line is the impact on the teachers and staff, on the parents, on the community that supports the school is going to be the same. We've got lists in our state and we have lists all over the country of schools that have been identified that potentially may not meet whatever that strict standard is. And I can tell you that parents and teachers and staff members are going to be quite surprised when someone tells them from Washington, D.C., or Des Moines, Iowa, that they are failing their children or that they're not having the adequate progress.

You know, this discussion about the public education system is an interesting one to me because not to ... a few days ago I was watching the television and I see us land a vehicle on Mars 330 million miles away. Who is responsible for developing that? Who's responsible for developing all of the wonderful things that are occurring in this country right now? I suspect a lot of it has to do with those who have been educated in the public schools. Now, I agree that there needs to be more work, and there needs to be greater accountability, and there needs to be an effort to reduce that achievement gap. Absolutely correct about that. I think the question is how you go about doing it and whether the resources are there to do it.

Education reform and election 2004

MARGARET WARNER: Governor, as we showed in the tape piece and many of the other Democratic candidates, as well, are out there either saying the law has to be dramatically amended and/or more money put in. Why do you think this is a hot issue on the campaign trail? And what impact is that going to have? Do you think this is going to drive change in this law?

GOV. TOM VILSACK: Well, I think when folks start finding out that there are in great states like Iowa, where education is valued potentially hundreds of schools on lists that aren't meeting average yearly progress standards or in some cases, in some states, thousands of schools, there are going to be some questions asked about the standards and the approach. I think at the end of the day, what we have to recognize is that youngsters learn in different ways. And here we are relying on a set of tests that may test a certain youngster at a certain period of time...

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ... I'm sorry, let me get Secretary Hickok on that because we're just about out of time. Do you think the heated nature of this debate in the campaign arena is going to drive changes in the law?

EUGENE HICKOK: I think it's going to drive changes in education. I think the law sets up a discussion, a national conversation, which is going on right now. It'll get heated during the campaign. In the end, I think it'll improve education because you'll see more people learning more about the nuances of American public education as this culture of American public education undergoes a real fundamental change.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Hickok, Governor Vilsack, thank you both.

Is No Child Left Behind working?
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer


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