Education Reforms Test the Candidates
HAMILTON, Ohio -- Educators in this southwestern Ohio town got thrilling news in late 2001: President Bush would sign his landmark school reforms called No Child Left Behind at Hamilton High, chosen from more than 90,000 public schools across America.
Bush's visit on Jan. 8, 2002, inspired such pride that the community erected a life-size bronze statue of the president, the centerpiece of a sculpture exhibit that glitters in the sunlight beneath an American flag outside Hamilton High School.
But today, even this school in an award-winning district hasn't lived up to Bush's tough reforms, which demand rigorous testing and judge schools on the progress of all students, whatever their circumstances.
Hamilton High was branded as a failing school in late August, after too few black and special-education students passed state tests.
Similar scenes are playing out across the nation, as thousands of schools--even those rated highly in their own states--fall short of the standards of No Child Left Behind, Bush's principal education policy and the most significant public school reform in decades.
The situation has riled educators, created consternation even in Republican strongholds such as Hamilton, and forced Bush and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, to try to maneuver around the controversy this campaign season.
Bush and his supporters are playing down the school failures, trying to fend off criticism, and drawing attention to schools whose records are improving under No Child Left Behind. The president is proposing an expansion of student testing nationwide, a key component of the reforms.
Kerry is treading carefully--the Massachusetts senator voted for the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, as did his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina--leaving even supporters wondering whether he would propose substantive changes to the law.
Instead, Kerry has seized on the issue of money, saying the president has not given schools the billions of dollars promised to carry out the changes.
Kerry says he would create a $207 billion trust fund to pay for the reforms as well as for smaller class sizes, school renovations, teacher recruitment and after-school programs over the next decade--all crucial initiatives to teachers unions that support him.
The National Education Association says Kerry has voted in favor of union positions 95 percent of the time, including opposing vouchers that provide public money for students to attend private schools. Bush supports vouchers.
Both candidates are calling for programs to improve high school graduation rates and better prepare students for college and work, with Bush proposing up to $200 million annually to help middle school pupils and high school students struggling in reading. Kerry proposes federal funds for states that deny driver's licenses to dropouts.
Both candidates also are playing to parents and college students, with Bush touting financial-aid increases and grants to low-income students studying math and science, and Kerry proposing tax credits for college tuition and aid for students who perform community service.
How voters will respond is hard to predict.
A recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll showed Bush and Kerry tied when respondents were asked which candidate they would support if they were voting "solely on the basis of a desire to strengthen the public schools." Both got support from 41 percent of those polled.
The same poll showed 68 percent of respondents knew very little or nothing about No Child Left Behind. However, when questioned about specifics, most did not agree with some of the law's key aspects, such as relying on a single statewide test to judge schools.
The law requires annual reading and math exams in at least three grades now, expanding to grades 3 through 8 and one grade in high school in 2005-06. Science tests will be added in at least three grades in 2007-08. A school is labeled as failing to make progress and can face tough sanctions if just one student group, such as low-income students, doesn't meet passing standards--even if the school as a whole excels.
Democrats are counting on demoralized and angry educators to inform voters how the changes affect their schools and communities.
Outrage over lack of respect
Dennis Vail is one of those educators. A technology coordinator at Chicago's Langston Hughes Elementary School, Vail said he is so enraged at how little respect teachers have been given during the Bush administration that he'd like to see a national teachers' strike for one day--with teachers across the country walking out in protest.
"I haven't talked to one public school teacher yet who likes No Child Left Behind," he told educators gathered in his living room recently for a "house party," one of thousands held around the country on Sept. 22 to bring public education into the election debate.
Teachers complain that the law doesn't give them enough credit for student progress and that it doesn't fix some of the underlying problems that can cause schools to fail.
One teacher at Vail's house talked about having 50 pupils in her 8th-grade class when school started this year, an impossibly large group to teach. Others complained about decaying buildings and lack of involvement by parents.
With the war in Iraq and terrorism dominating the campaign, the National Education Association and other organizations, including the anti-Bush group MoveOn.org, organized the house parties to focus attention on schools.
Neither Vail nor many of his guests made secret that they support Kerry, and Vail's bungalow in the Beverly neighborhood on Chicago's far South Side has a Kerry sign in the front window.
Not a top issue
Still, neither candidate's supporters believe education issues will be uppermost in voters' minds in November.
"Education policy in general, and No Child Left Behind, is not likely to be in the top tier of issues on which most people vote. It's going to be one of those second-tier issues important to a swing voter with kids in public school who is concerned that his or her school is being mislabeled or becoming a test-coaching academy," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. The organization has been critical of No Child Left Behind's reliance on testing as way to improve schools.
Bush is proposing more testing--from grades 3 through 11. Two more high school tests would be phased in over the next several years, further pressuring schools to make sure their students can perform.
Schools face a negative label of failing to make "adequate yearly progress" if too few students pass the tests each year. And failing schools that accept federal dollars face tougher sanctions, such as having to allow children to transfer to better schools. States set annual targets for how many children must pass the tests, and all students are expected to pass by spring 2014.
The law mandates that children from all backgrounds meet the targets--from minority, low-income and special-education students to immigrant children learning English. Scores are broken out for those groups, so schools can't hide behind overall averages buoyed by the brightest students. Though testing is the cornerstone of the reforms, the law also judges schools on factors such as test participation and graduation rates. It also requires schools to ensure that teachers are qualified in the subjects they teach.
To some civil rights groups and advocates for disadvantaged children, No Child Left Behind is a monumental effort to give poor and minority children the education they deserve. Bush spoke of it passionately at the Republican National Convention last month.
"To build a more hopeful America, we must help our children reach as far as their vision and character can take them," he said. "Tonight, I remind every parent and every teacher, I say to every child: No matter what your circumstance, no matter where you live--your school will be the path to the promise of America."
But that path is turning into a public relations problem for many schools and communities.
In Illinois, top suburban schools with diverse student populations are being tagged as failing, and the list of schools that must allow students to transfer--required after failing to make progress two or more years in a row--has ballooned to 694 this year from 562 last year, preliminary data show.
Nationwide, an Education Week survey shows that the number of schools that must offer transfers this year already exceeds 6,000, based on preliminary data from about half the states. Last year, fewer than 3,000 schools in those states had to offer transfers.
At the same time, the survey showed some progress: Fewer schools are being labeled as failing. In 2003, about 38 percent of schools in those states in the Education Week survey failed to make adequate progress, compared with 31 percent this year.
It's possible for the number of failing schools to decline even as the number of schools offering transfers increases, federal education officials say. The way the law works, schools must make adequate progress for two years in a row before they can get off the list of schools that must offer transfers. So a school may no longer be considered failing in a given year--pushing down the number of failing schools--but still be among those that must offer transfers.
However, supporters and critics acknowledge that the progress is attributed in part to loopholes in the law, changes in rules in response to complaints, and statistical methods that can inflate test results and help schools avoid a failing label.
At the GOP convention, Bush cited the success of Gainesville Elementary School in Georgia, where the majority of pupils are Hispanic and poor but about 90 percent passed reading and math tests last year.
But Georgia records show the school was judged on the scores of only 146 pupils of the 217 enrolled in the grades tested. Thirty pupils weren't there on testing days; an additional 41 took the tests but their scores weren't counted. That is allowed under No Child Left Behind because those 41 pupils were not at the school for a full year. The loophole helps schools with children who move in and out because of family circumstances and are expected to do worse on tests.
In fact, the transient students at Gainesville did score lower than their classmates, and would have pulled down the statistics Bush cited, though not dramatically. The school would have met state passing standards with the pupils' scores included, Georgia education officials said.
Gainesville Principal Shawn Arevalo McCullough attributed the school's success to initiatives such as extended school hours and Saturday school for the lowest-performing students. He also cited the No Child Left Behind law.
"It requires people to do their jobs and provide no excuses [for children not succeeding]," McCullough said. "We've got a no-excuses approach here."
Critics say Bush's reforms disregard problems at the root of poor performance, such as conditions of poverty, and instead blame teachers and unfairly label schools as failing.
`Failing' is the wrong word
The Bush campaign, sensitive to those complaints, says "failing" is the wrong word.
"No Child Left Behind doesn't see these schools as failing," said John Bailey, deputy policy director for education for Bush's campaign. "There is typically a subgroup of students that the school needs to be focusing on. . . . It's really not a matter of failing, it's a matter of identifying which schools, classrooms, and students need more help."
Kerry's campaign staff said he supports a bill by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) that would make changes to No Child Left Behind to help schools meet annual targets and avoid failing labels.
But Kerry has said little more in recent months about the substance of the reforms, instead focusing on funding in his attacks on Bush. He says the president has short-changed the law by almost $27 billion, a figure based on amounts authorized in No Child Left Behind, compared with actual disbursements to schools through 2004, and proposed disbursements for 2005.
"He has been in office for four years and not only has he failed to give schools the money that he has promised, but more importantly, he has failed to give schools the tools they need [to improve]," said Robert Gordon, domestic policy director for the Kerry campaign.
The Bush campaign dismisses that claim, pointing out that federal support to schools has increased significantly during Bush's term. The Department of Education's budget grew to $55.7 billion in 2004 from $42.2 billion in 2001, department figures show, a rise of 32 percent.
And while federal money makes up less than 10 percent of school budgets nationwide, it is crucial to urban districts, which have large disadvantaged populations and get more federal money as a result. Chicago Public Schools expects $832.3 million in federal dollars this budget year, about 20 percent of its operating budget.
Bush supporters and organizations supporting No Child Left Behind are trying to combat negative publicity.
The Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers, is posting information on its Web site to highlight schools making progress under the law. "It's Working!" the group's updates on the law say.
Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who sponsored and helped write No Child Left Behind, is criticizing the law's opponents on his Web site.
Resistance to weakening law
While the law's supporters in Congress are open to adjustments that will make implementation smoother, he said, "We're not open to weakening the law and undercutting the law to let people push kids from one grade to the next."
Boehner represents Hamilton in Congress--a chief reason Bush signed No Child Left Behind at Hamilton High.
Boehner said he is aware that the high school failed to make adequate progress, based on test scores last spring on Ohio's tough, new high school exam.
Despite the federal label, Hamilton High was designated as "effective" this year under a separate system that Ohio uses to evaluate schools.
Those contrasting labels make Hamilton city school Supt. Janet Baker--a supporter of No Child Left Behind--wonder if the federal law "is doing what we want it do. Is it accurately representing what is taking place?"
As the law plays out in communities across America, Baker said, "There has to be a willingness to evaluate the reality of the bill against the original intent and to make adjustments."
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CAMPAIGN 2004: THE ISSUES
Both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry backed the No Child Left Behind Act, but they differ on whether to move aggressively or cautiously on testing.
Strict standards spark controversy
George W. Bush
- Proposed the No Child Left Behind Act, his first legislative initiative, which passed with backing from such unlikely allies as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The law toughens standards for teachers, schools and student achievement, and allows children to transfer from failing schools. It requires students to be tested in reading and math at least three times--generally in grade school, middle school and high school. Beginning in 2005-06, the testing will expand to grades 3 through 8, and one grade in high school. Science tests will be added in at least three grades in 2007-08.
- Wants to expand testing through 11th grade, which would mean two more years of testing in high school.
- Voted in favor of the No Child Left Behind Act but says Bush has underfunded the effort--a claim the Bush campaign rejects.
- Proposes a $207 billion National Education Trust
Fund to fully fund the reforms, and pay for other initiatives such as school renovations, smaller class sizes and after-school programs.
- Believes the No Child law relies too heavily on standardized tests and should include other measures, such as attendance and parental satisfaction.
- Supports a bill sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy
(D-Mass.) that would make it easier for schools to meet annual targets under No Child Left Behind.
Division exists over use of public money for private tuition
George W. Bush
- Supports vouchers, saying they give poor students more choice and pressure public schools to be competitive.
- Asked Congress for $50 million in 2003 and $75 million in 2004 for voucher programs, but has won approval for only one pilot program involving more than 1,000 students in the District of Columbia.
- Opposes vouchers for private-school students, saying such a system would hurt public schools.
- His opposition to vouchers and his other education positions led to endorsements from the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.
Costs at four-year public colleges rose 9.8 percent last year.
George W. Bush
- Proposes more than $73 billion for loans, grants and other financial aid to college students, an increase of 55 percent since 2001.
- Proposes a 47 percent increase in funding for Pell Grants to benefit needy students, and a new program to provide $100 million in grants to low-income college students who study math or science beginning in 2006.
- Calls for $125 million in grants as an incentive for community colleges to offer programs allowing high school students to earn college credit.
- Proposes a community service plan in which high school students could earn the equivalent of their state's four-year public college tuition if they performed national service, an average of $5,000 a year for two years of service.
- Calls for a College Opportunity tax credit on the first $4,000 of tuition for every year of college--100 percent of the first $1,000 and 50 percent of the next $3,000, for a total credit of $2,500.
Early childhood education
Median pay of preschool teachers was $19,270 in 2002.
George W. Bush
- Aims to "focus Head Start more clearly on school readiness, and allow states to integrate Head Start programs into their existing preschool preparedness efforts."
- Seeks to expand Reach Out and Read program to make early literacy "a standard part of pediatric primary care."
- Favors increased funding for Head Start.
- Wants to expand early childhood programs to make early education "available and affordable for every American child," but stops short of calling for a universal prekindergarten program.
Poll finds 57 percent of teachers "very satisfied" with career.
George W. Bush
- Plans an incentive fund for states and schools to reward teachers whose students achieve strong results.
- Would increase loan forgiveness to $17,500 from $5,000 for some teachers in low-income communities.
- Promises improved training and $5,000 raises for teachers in high-need regions or those who handle subjects where there are a shortage of teachers.
- Says that he will ask for more in return, including tougher certification tests to ensure teachers are qualifed and "fast, fair ways to make sure that teachers who don't belong in the classroom don't stay there."
Plans aim to help high schoolers, punish dropouts.
George W. Bush
- Proposes up to $200 million annually to help middle school and high school students reading below grade level.
- Proposes a $200 million fund to develop performance plans for entering high school students, and track student work to determine whether students are improving.
- Would encourage states to deny driver's licenses to dropouts.
- Supports efforts to break up large high schools and turn them into more-nurturing smaller schools.
- Says graduation rates are unreliable and need to more accurately reflect how many students are dropping out. Intends to require states to report correct figures and show graduation rates for minority, low income and all other student groups.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES