Do Not Penalize
Children across Vermont are back at in their classrooms, reading the classics, studying languages, working in science labs and huddling over math.
Just outside those classrooms, however, is a buzz of concern about how the federal No Child Left Behind law is impacting this scene. In the two years since the law's inception, school officials are beginning to understand the impact of NCLB on schools.
No one argues with the goal of the federal education reform. No child -- regardless of race, family income, disability or language -- should be left behind in the classroom. This law rightly focuses the nation's attention on improving education for all children.
In addition, the law stresses the basics of writing and mathematics, and that's a good thing.
That said, No Child Left Behind has created problems for school districts. States need more flexibility from Washington to live with the law.
Even before the federal mandates, Vermont had improved education and expanded testing. Revamping our quality system to meet federal requirements cost money and created a fear that good schools will be deemed "failing," forcing expensive changes or closure.
Other concerns with the law include:
-- Funding. The law is considered an underfunded federal mandate. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates at least a $29 billion gap in funding to the states for 2004, which includes NCLB.
-- Assessments. The federal requirements focus on writing and math testing, while Vermonters value other areas of education, as well. The very real concern is that schools will teach to the test, focusing too narrowly on subjects that assure federal approval.
-- One-size-fits-all. Historically, and for good reason, education has been controlled primarily by local communities. It's troubling to have bureaucrats in Washington indirectly driving curriculum and assessment choices. Of particular concern is the universal approach this law assumes, overlooking the reality that the needs of children in Mississippi differ from those in New York City or Burlington.
-- Hidden costs. States are only beginning to uncover these. For example, NCLB requires local school districts to transport homeless students back and forth to their original districts if requested.
Vermont is not alone in articulating these problems. So widespread is the worry that the National Council of State Legislatures is compiling a list of top concerns nationwide.
Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate, who has little tolerance for emotional hand-wringing over the law, correctly urges thoughtful discussion of ways to use NCLB to improve schools while getting around the provisions that erode quality. Cate deserves credit for providing remarkable flexibility to local districts struggling to meet federal requirements.
However, he needs help from Washington.
The Bush administration has approved flexibility in certain areas and indicated a willingness to go further. While the mandate of NCLB -- quality education for all students -- should not be abandoned, increased flexibility is imperative.
States like Vermont that exceed federal standards must protect their high quality. The federal government should work with -- not penalize -- schools that fail to meet standards. That's the best way to assure that no child is left behind.
Burlington Free Press
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES