NCLB: The Law with No Defense
In all the world, the loneliest people must be that handful of men and women of the Department of Education dispatched by the Bush administration to wander the country, defending the new No Child Left Behind Act. Talk about friendless.
Michael Sentance, the department's Northeast representative, sat before Vermont's joint House-Senate committee on education not long ago, and sustained two hours of hammering by Republicans and Democrats alike. You never saw such bipartisan contempt. He looked miserable, but as he bobbed and weaved through the questions, this Bush appointee remained polite and understated. "It is an audacious and challenging piece of legislation," he conceded. "No doubt about it."
No doubt about it. Think of it from Mr. Sentance's point of view.
How do you defend a law that is likely to result in 85 percent of public schools in America being labeled failing — based on a single test score? Audacious, indeed.
And how do you defend a law demanding that schools have 100 percent of their children reaching proficiency on state tests in the next decade, and then provides a fraction of the resources state educators say is necessary to help the poor, the foreign born, the handicapped meet those standards?
Democrats and Republicans wanted to know. Did Mr. Sentance really believe, given poverty's daunting effects, that 100 percent of children could pass state exams?
"That remains to be seen," replied Mr. Sentance.
And how do you defend a law that gives the federal government unprecedented control over "failing" schools — that tells local school boards when they must fire their principals and teachers — even though it pays a small fraction (7 percent) of public education costs?
Representative Howard Crawford, the Republican chairman of the House committee, urged that the law be modified for rural states like Vermont. And Senator James Condos, the Democratic chairman, explained why this law was so despised in Vermont, a state with one of the most successful testing and assessment programs in the nation. "What the federal government is asking us to do is dump our state educational system," he said. "That's what's gnawing at people." Senator Condos and Representative Crawford wondered, Could the federal government be a flexible?
Poor Mr. Sentance. His hands were tied. "Probably a lot less flexibility than people are looking for," he said.
The Vermonters were peeved. The state already has its own fiscal crisis — a record 40 towns voting down school budgets — and now they were faced with this underfinanced federal mandate. The law allows up to $7 billion in additional federal aid this year, but President Bush has a war to finance — he may need $10 billion for Turkey alone — and could spare just $1 billion extra for left-behind children.
William Reedy, legal counsel for Vermont's education department, opened the 669-page law to Sec. 9527.A. "Nothing in this act," it says, shall mandate a state "to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act." Mr. Reedy wondered, If the federal government didn't pay what the states needed, were states freed from having to comply?
Mr. Sentance bobbed and weaved madly, but Mr. Reedy kept asking. Finally Mr. Sentance said, "The act is paid for, and we are paying what we should be paying for." The room went silent. A rare moment of candor. Now they understood. Whatever the president appropriated was the exact amount needed. There was no escape.
As I travel the country, I find nearly universal contempt for this noble-sounding law signed last year by President Bush. Tom Horne, the Republican state education commissioner of Arizona, and Tom Watkins, the Democratic commissioner of Michigan, sound virtually alike in their criticisms. The only difference is that Mr. Horne emphasizes that he admires the president and supports his intent, it's just that many of the details are bad.
In January, Mr. Horne flew to Washington for 37 meetings in three days with federal officials, pleading for flexibility. He is hopeful, but has no commitments yet. He is particularly concerned — as is Mr. Watkins of Michigan — with the adequate-yearly-progress provision. Under the law, to avoid being labeled "failing," a typical school must make a 5 percent gain a year on state test scores.
But even if a school does that, it can still be labeled failing. If just one subgroup in one grade fails to make 5 percent — poor children, black children, limited English speakers, the handicapped, third graders, black fifth graders — the school is labeled failing.
Mr. Horne and Mr. Watkins expect 85 percent of their schools to be declared failing, and that, Mr. Horne said, would be a "train wreck." Mr. Horne says schools should be held accountable, but as a conservative, he also believes children and parents should be. Under this law, he says, you can have a great teacher working with poor children, and the children make two years' progress in one year, but they still do not meet the proficiency standard and that school is labeled failing. And you can have bad teachers at a rich school with good test takers labeled a success. "Arizona will have good schools punished just because they're from poor areas," he said. As for the 100 percent proficiency standard? "Definitely impossible," Mr. Horne said.
Michigan was recently informed by the federal government that even newly arrived immigrants must take all state tests in English. Mr. Watkins points out that Michigan's math test consists of 35 word problems. "Is it educationally sound to give a math test and say students don't know math when they do — they just can't read the problems?" he said. The government was adamant. Michigan was ordered to test in English or be penalized $1 million.
"It's time for the feds to come to the heartland and listen," Mr. Watkins said. "They must do away with the bad and ugly in the law. It's turning into a vehicle to bash our teachers and kids."
At the end of that two-hour hearing in Vermont, I asked Mr. Sentance how his No Child Left Behind legislative tour was going. "The Connecticut session went on for three hours," he said. And were they hostile, too? "They had lots of questions," he said, before slipping away.
A Pervasive Dismay on a Bush School Law
New York Times
March 19, 2003
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES