Bush Education Officials Find New Law a Tough Sell
Ohanian Comment: Note all the references to preparing students for the global economy. One can wonder if Mr. Meyer saw any dissonance in preaching the global economy line to a sixth grade teacher who makes $26,000 a year.
SALT LAKE CITY, Feb. 20 — It was 8 p.m., and Ken Meyer was smiling gamely from a gloomy high school stage at an audience of disgruntled teachers and parents to whom he had been introduced as "a bigwig from Washington," come to Utah to explain President Bush's centerpiece education law.
A former math teacher was at a microphone, arguing that it would cost $1 billion for the state to carry out the law's requirements, while the federal government gives Utah only about $100 million.
"That's like sending a child for $10 worth of groceries and giving him just $1 to buy them," the former teacher said.
"Let me correct that," Mr. Meyer interrupted wearily, wading in as if with a fire extinguisher, spraying official statistics on behalf of the Department of Education, where he is a deputy assistant secretary. "Believe me, I've traveled to 40 states to talk about this law, and I've done the math. It's very well funded."
As he campaigns for re-election, President Bush hopes to capitalize on the law, known as No Child Left Behind, as one of the pillars of his domestic agenda. But the Democratic presidential candidates have made it a frequent target of criticism and ridicule. And things are not going that well even in this, one of the most Republican of states.
Not only the law's financing, but provisions that expand standardized testing to raise achievement and that label schools as underperforming when even small groups of students miss proficiency targets have stirred discontent nationwide among educators and local politicians. So Mr. Meyer's job is to barnstorm the country, part good-will diplomat, part flak-catcher, calming emotions and clarifying misunderstandings.
He is one of many Bush administration officials traveling to explain the 700-page law. Since Feb. 8, at least 10 other department and White House officials have spoken in nine states, although Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the pace of travel had been consistent for the last year.
"I've been in some, I don't want to say hostile, but very contentious environments" in recent months, Mr. Meyer said. "Places where I wondered whether I'd get out of there with my skin intact. This law is largely misunderstood by the public because of its enormity, so people get emotional about it, and you've got pent-up frustrations."
Mr. Meyer's trip this week was the second Bush administration mission in two weeks to Utah. A five-person delegation this month defended the law to lawmakers, but the Republican-controlled Utah House nevertheless voted 64 to 8 on Feb. 10 not to comply with any provisions not fully financed by federal money. That measure now awaits Senate action.
Senator Dave Gladwell, a Republican who is the Utah bill's Senate sponsor, said many of his colleagues felt ambivalent about the measure.
"We don't want to embarrass President Bush or his administration, and yet we're kind of sensitive to our state sovereignty," he said.
Gov. Olene S. Walker, a Republican, said in an interview that she expected "heated discussion" of the bill in the Senate. She declined to say whether she would sign it if approved.
The Feb. 10 vote by the Utah House was the strongest action by any state legislature to date, but more than a dozen other states have passed or introduced laws or resolutions challenging the federal law or commissioning studies of the costs of carrying it out.
Last month, the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution, 98 to 1, urging Congress to exempt Virginia from the law. That vote came after Rod Paige, the education secretary, and other administration officials met with Virginia lawmakers, said James H. Dillard II, chairman of the House Education Committee.
"Six of us met with Paige," Mr. Dillard, a Republican, said. "He looked us in the eye and said, `It's fully funded.' We looked him back in the eye and said, `We don't think so.' "
"We got platitudes and stonewalls, but no corrective action," he said.
Secretary Paige took action on one part of the law on Thursday, announcing that test scores of recent immigrants who did not speak English would no longer be considered in determining whether a school was meeting annual targets for academic progress.
That should mean that fewer schools will be judged as "needing improvement," a label that requires schools to carry out costly remedial measures and can result in removal of their staffs. Still, experts predict that within a few years a majority of the country's 90,000 schools will receive the label.
Last fall, 245 of Utah's 810 schools were put on a watch list because they had failed to make "adequate yearly progress," said Steven O. Laing, Utah's state school superintendent. Many had been considered excellent schools, but ended up on the list because one small group of students — fifth-grade special education students, for instance — had failed to reach academic targets.
In a meeting with Mr. Meyer on Tuesday, several Republican senators asked questions reflecting concerns about schools put on watch lists in their districts. Mr. Meyer described the law as a tool that helps states to measure school performance, while giving them the flexibility to set their own proficiency benchmarks.
"It's a pretty dynamic business management model," Mr. Meyer said.
After the meeting, Senator Bill Wright, a Republican who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said Mr. Meyer had done "a great job."
"But we still have a difference of opinion about how N.C.L.B. would affect Utah," Senator Wright said.
An hour later, Mr. Meyer met with school superintendents. He heard Steven C. Norton, superintendent of a rural district in northern Utah, report that parents were upset that two schools had been put on a watch list because the law required that 95 percent of students take the standardized tests and one student less than that qualifying threshold had shown up on testing day.
"These are die-hard conservative Republicans, and they feel that this is like crying wolf when they see their school labeled for frivolous reasons," Mr. Norton said in an interview that he had told Mr. Meyer.
That evening, addressing 50 educators and parents at Kearns High School in a Salt Lake City suburb, Mr. Meyer said that American schools needed to improve so that workers could compete for jobs in a globalized economy. The law, he said, empowered educators by identifying students who needed special help and resources.
Russel Sias, a retired engineer and registered Republican whose daughter is a middle school teacher, said to a reporter at the meeting: "I feel like we're hearing the best vacuum cleaner salesman in the world. They're going to label every school in the country as failing, and they call it empowerment?"
Rebecca Christensen, who earns $26,000 a year teaching sixth grade, told the crowd of the frustrations of trying to raise test scores at a school where student turnover was high and parental involvement low.
"How many of the congressmen who wrote this law have ever been in a classroom?" she asked.
Mr. Meyer listened, and then congratulated Ms. Christensen and the other teachers in the audience for working in education under difficult conditions.
"You're all on the front line, and I applaud you," he said.
Then he added, "I like to quote the president: `There's not a school in this country that doesn't need improvement.' "
New York Times
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES