Critics say the 'No Child' program is a setup for public school failure
There may be widespread disagreement about the virtues and vices of President Bush's landmark education-reform law, but all sides agree on one thing: Naming it No Child Left Behind was politically brilliant.
"They came up with a clever name," says Karyn Storey, a Farmington mother of three grade-schoolers. "Who wants to leave a child behind?"
Certainly not congressional members, who overwhelmingly passed No Child Left Behind in 2001. But 2 1/2 years later, that bipartisan support is turning into bipartisan opposition as political perceptions about the law give way to practical frustrations of implementing it.
Call it the Chalkboard Rebellion. The chorus of critics from the left and the right -- which keeps growing in voices and volume -- includes stalwart Bush backers such as Utah's Republican legislators. They, like many educators, are attacking the law as intrusive, misguided, unworkable and underfunded.
Utah lawmakers even considered scrapping participation and forfeiting the $106 million it brings to low-income schools throughout the state. Earlier this month, the Utah House voted to stick with No Child Left Behind, but barred districts from tapping state and local money to carry out the act's mandates.
"If the act's regulations were tea, we could have our own tea party right here in the middle of Utah," says Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, referring to the 1773 Boston Tea Party.
Popular rebellion: That spirit of insurrection still lives in New England -- this time directed at Bush's education law instead of King George III's England.
"If [Education Secretary Rod Paige] doesn't want to make the necessary changes, let's find someone else to run the ship and he can go fishing with his grandkids," says Bob Green, who heads the Republican Town Committee and serves on the school board in Salem, Conn.
Paige's department responded last week, loosening the testing rules for students learning English. The feds are determined to make No Child Left Behind work. For several months, U.S. officials have been trekking to states -- including Utah -- touting the law's benefits and flexibility.
"There is a lot of misunderstanding," says Ronald Tomalis, a top Paige aide, during a trip to Salt Lake City earlier this month. "There is no federal 'one way' for NCLB. The role of the federal government is to supplement what is taking place at the state and local level."
Utah tests grades one through 11 in language arts, math and science. The federal law requires annual reading and math exams in grades three through eight and once in high school.
Smoke and mirrors? Critics charge that the Bush administration's public-relations blitz is merely meant to dupe the masses.
"No Child Left Behind was prompted by the same belief that has prompted so many Bush initiatives -- that the American people are too stupid to look at the specifics of legislation and will be taken in by names," writes Sheila Kennedy, a Republican and a professor of law and public policy at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, in an e-mail to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Some argue that No Child Left Behind is seeking a shrouded, sinister goal: the ultimate privatization of public schools.
"The way NCLB judges schools creates the impression of widespread systemic failure in the public system," says Stan Karp, a teacher in Paterson, N.J., and an editor of the journal Rethinking Schools. "This would undercut support for public schools and be used to push for more divestment and privatization."
200 Utah schools marked: By codifying almost 40 ways that schools must measure up, Karp says, the law sets up schools for failure.
This year, more than 200 Utah schools fell short on at least one measure. Of those schools, 80 face sanctions if they fail to improve. The act says that if those high-poverty schools lag for five years, they could be converted to charter schools. The state school board also could opt to hire private companies to operate the schools -- though the schools would remain under state control.
Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey scoffs at such conspiracy talk, calling it "ridiculous and special-interest hyperbole."
"The only so-called agenda this president and this secretary have is implementing a bipartisan law that, simply put, ensures accountability for all children being able to read and do math on grade level," Aspey says in an e-mail.
No Child Left Behind requires, in essence, that public schools meet annual benchmarks toward 100 percent proficiency by 2014 in reading and math among four key groups: English learners, ethnic groups, low-income students and students with disabilities.
Minority support: Minority groups have been among the law's strongest supporters because they see it as a powerful motivator for schools to make changes that will raise their children's academic performance.
In Utah and across the nation, American Indian students trail other groups in almost every academic measure. The law finally will compel schools to close that gap, said Carla Knight-Cantsee, director of education and truancy intervention for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southeastern Utah. "A lot of times our students are classified as special-education students because of the [native] language," she said. "In San Juan [School District], they're trying to figure out how to improve, and that's a good thing. This is a start."
Incompetence vs. conspiracy: A few critics say the act is not so much nefarious as it is simply bad law.
"I always say you have to dismiss incompetence before conspiracy," says Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at Harvard University. "I don't think those who voted for it understood the consequences of the law's provisions."
Karyn Storey, the Farmington mom, is getting a taste of those consequences. One of her children is a special-needs student who will be expected to score at grade level with his peers. Another is struggling with reading comprehension -- even though she carries nearly a 4.0 GPA -- after being injured in a scooter accident three years ago.
"My concern as a mother is that the whole No Child Left Behind concept might actually make a child be left behind," Storey says.
Respect and reason: Orfield says driving the Bush administration's implementation approach is a kind of fundamentalism that pervades the Education Department. "They don't have a lot of respect for the public education community," he says. "They think public education people are lazy, that they just want money."
Bill Fullmer worries about that perception.
"They think we just pass [the students] on," says the Farmington Junior High principal. "It's a worthy goal to make sure kids aren't left behind. I think we've always tried to do that. I'm just concerned that the mandate is not reasonable. To expect schools to improve every year is not reasonable. Of course, there's going to be a dip sometimes."
By Mike Cronin
Salt Lake Tribune
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES