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No Child Left Behind Is at Fulcrum of Education Debate

BERKELEY COUNTY, W.Va. -- Four years ago, Republican George W. Bush used his advocacy for a new public schools testing regime to highlight what he called his "compassionate conservatism" approach to government, while Democrat Al Gore promised to build on a Clinton administration initiative to reduce class size.

But that was before Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq switched voters' worries to the question of which candidate will better protect their families. And in campaign 2004, Bush and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, say surprisingly little about education.

Some educators and parents want to hear more.

"Yes, war and the economy are important issues, but our children's future should at least make the top-five list of issues," said Michelle Martin, principal of Winchester Avenue Elementary School in Martinsburg, W.Va., a state that both political parties consider up for grabs in the Nov. 2 election.

When the president does mention schools, he boasts about his No Child Left Behind initiative, which he says "at long last" brings accountability to public schools and sends a message that poverty and race won't be excuses for academic failure. In a second term, he promises to bring the yearly testing regimen to high schools -- it is now limited to elementary and middle schools -- and to institute a new program to help districts better train teachers.

Kerry devoted only a few paragraphs to education in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. But he does offer a blistering critique of the president's education policy, accusing Bush of so badly underfunding No Child Left Behind as to ensure the failure of many public schools.

Signed into law in 2002, No Child Left Behind requires annual tests in reading and math; report cards in which school districts make available school-by-school student-achievement data; and, effective 2006, that every teacher in math, reading, science and other core areas have a degree in that subject.

The act authorized large yearly increases in education funding and more targeting of federal support to poor districts. The actual funds sought by the president and approved by Congress were significantly less, although more than was provided in previous years.

Kerry promises to repeal the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000 a year, in part to fully fund No Child Left Behind. He would also establish a federal fund to train teachers, provide bonuses to teachers who raise student performance, and begin a new after-school program for more than 3 million youngsters.

If either candidate were to ask about No Child Left Behind in Berkeley County -- one of the country's fastest growing school districts, with enrollment up 770 students, or 5 percent, since last year -- they'd find divided opinions.

Martin, the principal, said the law, while "underfunded," forces school administrators to focus on programs that "really prepare youngsters" to excel in standardized yearly math and reading tests. That's a good thing, she argued, because students are now better mastering the fundamentals.

But Erica Epperson, a parent with three children in the school district, said the law has led to "more teaching to the test," which she complained shortchanges instruction designed to tap student creativity.

No Child Left Behind plays out in ways not yet reflected in the education talking points of the major presidential campaigns.

For example, two Berkeley schools failed to achieve "adequately yearly progress" the last two years in standardized math and reading tests. Under the law, parents with children in those schools may transfer them to better-performing schools. Yet not one request to switch was made among the 1,400 students affected.

Epperson, who has a son at one of the "failing" schools, Potomack Intermediate in Falling Waters, explained that parents realized the listing was not a result of "anything the school was doing wrong," but rather the inability to raise the scores of a group of special education students.

"We all felt our children were receiving a good education at a brand-new facility with teachers that are well-qualified," Epperson said.

Districts must report whether specific groups of students -- including minorities and those in special education -- are progressing. The two Berkeley schools last year met requirements for their students overall, but fell short for special education clusters. Epperson questioned whether this makes sense.

So did Frank Aliveto, the district's deputy superintendent.

"We're not leaving these students behind," Aliveto said. "We identified them long ago as having special needs, put them in small classes, and provided supplemental materials."

But the fourth-grade reading test is given to all fourth-graders, even subgroups known to be reading at the second-grade level. When they fail, asked Aliveto, "Well, jeepers, is that a surprise?"

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige makes no apologies for No Child Left Behind.

In an interview, Paige said federal education funding is slated to reach a record $57 billion in 2005, up 36 percent since Bush took office -- a bigger increase than the Clinton administration achieved during comparable periods.

The Bush administration has been careful not to dictate standards, letting states set their own, he said. His department has provided waivers when states requested more flexibility.

Paige said he is open to working with school administrators -- in Berkeley County and elsewhere -- who are concerned that they can't comply with the law's 2006 mandate that every class be staffed with a "highly qualified teacher" -- defined as someone with a degree in the subject being taught.

Where the administration won't compromise, he said, is in insisting that all students be evaluated for yearly progress.

"First we start off with the premise that the name (of) the bill bears: No child should be left behind -- notwithstanding their ZIP code, or notwithstanding their native language," Paige said. "All students should have an opportunity to experience our very best efforts."

But Robert Gordon, senior policy adviser for the Kerry campaign, said the shortfall in funding, which the campaign pegs at $27 billion and growing, seriously undermines the ability of school districts to help failing schools improve.

"John Kerry's goal would be to give students the tools they need to meet high standards, which means putting a good teacher in every classroom, supplementing this with after-school programs and working hard to turn around schools that are failing," Gordon said in an interview.

Instead of granting waivers to states that complain about problems -- an approach he called "piecemeal" -- Gordon said Kerry would seek changes in the law to "fix those problems across the board."

At a recent symposium on No Child Left Behind and the November elections, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat and Kerry supporter, said both candidates should focus less on the merits of the school reform law and more on how to overhaul failing schools.

"Most of the debate so far has been on questions about adequate yearly progress and less about the fixes for how we're going to see this remediation take place," Warner said. "Neither candidate, in my view at least, has really captured on the national level how we're going to fix it."

Nationally, conservatives complain that the law is a federal intrusion into local school districts, while liberals complain that it is underfunded.

The National Education Association, the nation's biggest teacher union, backs Kerry but continues to seek an even broader overhaul of No Child Left Behind.

"Instead of punishing schools that need help the most, educators, parents and the public want to see investments in the classroom," said NEA President Reg Weaver. "We all know what works in the classroom to help students achieve -- high-quality teachers, up-to-date resources and small class sizes."

But Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and co-author with her husband of "America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible," said Bush deserves credit for insisting that the new law respond to what he calls the "soft bigotry of low expectations," which he argues both underestimates and shortchanges minority youngsters.

"I think he did move in the right direction with No Child Left Behind," Thernstrom said. "It was a good step, and again he got nothing but grief for it. For the first time, we're about outcomes. For the first time, we're asking about the race gap. For the first time, there is some accountability built in, a little bit of teeth."

On other education issues, Bush supported a pilot program, begun this school year, which gave vouchers to attend private schools to more than 1,000 Washington, D.C., students. Paige said vouchers give youngsters options when their public schools fail them. Kerry opposed the voucher plan on grounds it would take away resources from public schools.

On higher education, Kerry has proposed tax credits of up to $4,000 a year to help parents pay for college tuition, while Bush has proposed increased Pell grants to supplement college costs, and more funding to help community colleges expand job training programs.

— Bruce Alpert
Newhouse News Service


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