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NCLB Outrages

Battle Lines Drawn Over No Child Left Behind
Ohanian Comment: This reporter says Kerry is capitalizing on discontent with NCLB. A whole lot of us think he's missed the boat, refusing to listen to NCLB critics who say it's not the money but the very core of NCLB that is flawed. Kerry just advocates throwing more money at the mess. He, like most Democrts, seems incapable of admitting he made a mistake in voting for it.

SARASOTA, Fla. - Five years after getting a D on Florida's school report card, Alta Vista Elementary School got an A this year, and Principal Constance White-Davis is ready to celebrate: She's throwing a lobster party Aug. 6.

"We finally got there," White-Davis said. "When I look at the test data, I feel good."

But there's a downside, too: Because the school failed to meet standards under the federal No Child Left Behind law, parents are being told they can transfer their children to better schools if they want.

The seeming contradiction is caused by a collision of two school-grading systems, one championed by Florida's Republican governor, Jeb Bush, the other by his brother, President Bush.

When Gov. Bush released the latest state scores last month, 68 percent of the schools received an A or a B. But at the same time, 77 percent of the state's schools were told they didn't satisfy the federal requirements mandated by No Child Left Behind.

Critics say it makes little sense and confuses the public.

"If the students are progressing as well as the governor claims, how is it possible that the overwhelming majority of Florida's schools failed the president's test?" asked state Senate Democratic leader Ron Klein.

Florida is the latest example of the growing backlash against the No Child Left Behind law, which requires schools to conduct yearly tests in reading and math for all students in grades 3-8. In an unusual twist, the administration of Gov. Bush is handing out bonus checks for excellent performance to some of the same schools that are falling short under No Child Left Behind.

"It's the whole issue of unintended consequences," said David Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It just wasn't thought out very well." Across the nation, he said, the law is producing "a great deal of roiled emotions."

When editorial writers in Florida began attacking the systems, Gov. Bush responded by writing a letter to the St. Petersburg Times. He said it's common for people to receive different grades under different grading systems and that the same should apply to schools.

"An employee may be a great worker, but could improve on people skills. A basketball player may be a league all-star or game MVP, but still need to work on his jump shot," he wrote.

With polls showing education as a top domestic concern, Democrats are seeking to capitalize on the controversy and deliver votes to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, President Bush's presumed opponent in November. Advertisements criticizing the law have begun airing in key states that could decide the election, including Florida, Ohio and Arizona.

Kerry is among the many Democrats who say Congress is not spending enough money to help schools pay for the additional testing required by the law.

Republicans say Kerry is on shaky ground, noting that he first voted for the law and now is criticizing it. And plenty of Democrats who voted for the legislation say it's working because it's shining a spotlight on schools that need improvement.

"In some communities, this is a tough, tough message," said California Rep. George Miller of Martinez, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "But what's better? Lying to people about it? Hiding it from parents?"

Democrats and Republicans alike say there's no doubt President Bush scored a big political victory by getting Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind law, the biggest overhaul of K-12 education policy since 1965. Bush made the plan a cornerstone of his 2000 campaign.

Some say that before he came along, Republicans at the federal level were content to cede the education issue to Democrats.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House education panel, recalled the response he got in 1996 when he walked into a meeting of Republican leaders and suggested the party begin talking about education issues.

"They just looked at me like I had just arrived from another planet," Boehner said. "Republicans never talked about it. It's been a long, slow process."

Education, which voters cited as their top concern in the late 1990s, has been surpassed in the polls by the war in Iraq and the economy. But both parties are campaigning hard on the issue, particularly as they target Latinos and married women with children, groups of swing voters that consistently rank education as a priority.

In a poll conducted by the Washington Post last month, Kerry had a 10-point lead over Bush when respondents were asked to pick the candidate they most trusted to handle education.

Allan Rivlin, a Democratic pollster, said President Bush achieved "something remarkable" in gaining parity for Republicans with Democrats on the education issue.

He cited a poll that showed the country nearly evenly split on the No Child Left Behind law: 39 percent said they supported the legislation and 38 percent opposed it.

Objecting to interference from Washington, more than a dozen states have threatened to opt out of No Child Left Behind.

One of the biggest rebellions came in Virginia, where the Republican-controlled House of Delegates voted 98-1 in January to pass a resolution calling on Congress to exempt the state from the law, calling it one of the sweeping intrusions in history into state and local control of education.

A similar measure passed the Republican-controlled House in Utah. In May, Wisconsin's attorney general, a Democrat, issued an opinion that the state has no obligation to comply with the law because it is funded inadequately.

The Arizona House of Representatives flirted with the idea of opting out of the law before Republicans decided to scrap the idea.

"We kinda let it go away," said Arizona Republican state Rep. Warde Nichols. "We didn't want it to become a campaign issue. ... We didn't want any leverage to be there against President Bush."

No Child Left Behind: At a glance
What: The cornerstone of President Bush's education agenda requiring schools to conduct yearly tests in reading and math for all students in grades 3-8.

Why: To have all students achieving at grade level by 2014. * The legislation also requires states to ensure that all teachers are highly qualified for their jobs, by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

How: Schools must meet specific steps toward that goal, making "adequate yearly progress." * If schools do not meet their goals for two consecutive years, they're labeled "schools in need of improvement." * If they don't improve, they face consequences, including giving parents the right to transfer their children to other schools.

Issue: Bush's presumed opponent, Democratic Sen. John Kerry, voted for the law but says the president and Congress are not providing enough funding.

— Rob Hotakainen
Sacramento Bee


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