Kerry Would "Fully Fund" NCLB
For Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, public school classrooms may be a tougher proving ground than even the front lines of Iraq.
Both topics are bound to come up during tonight's town hall-style presidential debate in St. Louis.
On education, Kerry faces the arduous task of distinguishing himself from an incumbent closely identified with the get-tough education laws known as No Child Left Behind.
It means Kerry has to stake out a unique position -- while still appearing to support strong accountability for schools and teachers.
That's hard because, like it or not, life in American public schools has changed under the Republican president.
If you're looking for a teaching job, you can no longer be hired without a teaching credential. If you're a principal, you could lose your job if your students score too low on the state's achievement test each year.
And if you're a student who does poorly on that exam, you could help cause your school to be singled out for "corrective action" -- which includes the possibility of a state takeover.
Federal dollars make up only 6 percent of what is spent on education nationwide and 13 percent in California. But under Bush, the federal government's influence on states' education policies has soared beyond its contribution to the bottom line. The vehicle for this change has been the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which redirected federal education laws to aim on raising student test scores.
"The die is cast," Rod Paige, Bush's secretary for education, told The Chronicle during a recent visit to San Francisco. "The nation is not going to permit our system to slide back. When (school) accountability was introduced by (former President Bill) Clinton, only 11 states complied. Now, all 50 states are in compliance because there are more teeth to the law. We communicated the message that we were prepared to withhold dollars."
Enter John Kerry.
His aides say the senator strongly supports No Child Left Behind -- which is alternately blamed on Bush or seen as a feather in the president's cap despite being co-written by Democrats.
But Kerry agrees with critics who say the law punishes failure while failing to reward improvement, a nuance that could well go over the heads of voters if the senator chooses to dwell on it tonight.
The Democrat's stance supporting the law, while also backing teachers'
criticisms of No Child Left Behind, already earned Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, his own flip-flopping charge from Vice President Dick Cheney during their debate Tuesday.
So instead of venturing into the esoteric pros and cons of the arcane regulations of No Child Left Behind, Kerry is likely to boil his education argument down to a single word: money.
It's a word that parents and students who attend the nation's cash- starved public schools easily understand. And it's a word that has helped attract most of the nation's educators into Kerry's camp like iron flecks to a magnet.
"I believe there will be full funding of No Child Left Behind under Kerry, and there will be more respect shown for the people involved in working with children," Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, told The Chronicle.
Kerry has already joined those who say the Bush administration has increased regulations while skimping on dollars. Since 2002, Bush has requested $26.5 billion less than Congress is authorized to spend on education, according to an analysis by U.S. Rep. George Miller of Martinez, who helped write No Child Left Behind, and his fellow Democrats on the House Education Committee.
Of that amount, California's share would have been $1.3 billion, the largest of any state, the committee said.
Kerry's campaign has stressed that he can "fully fund" the education act by repealing Bush's tax cuts for families earning more than $200,000.
This would create a $200 billion infusion for schools, Kerry says, adding that he would use the money to create a National Education Trust Fund.
Kerry wants to use the money to encourage state participation in his priority areas: tougher certification tests for teachers; bonus pay or free public college tuition for teachers who promise to work in needy schools; revoking the driver's licenses of dropouts; increasing college mentors for middle-school students; and transforming large high schools into smaller ones.
Although neither candidate is likely to spell it out, Kerry's education initiatives appear to want to coax change from the education system through voluntary participation, while Bush's approach has been to make change mandatory.
Under No Child Left Behind, any school or state that refuses to comply with any one of its myriad regulations ultimately faces the loss of federal funds. To date, no funds have been withheld. But at least three states, including California, have received warnings, and all made quick repairs.
The backbone of No Child Left Behind is a requirement that every public school student score "proficient" on statewide exams by the year 2014.
Until then, all schools that miss annual test-score goals are publicly identified as failing to make "adequate yearly progress." Those getting federal funds for poor children initially receive extra help from secular or religious sources -- another Bush fingerprint. But if those schools still fail to meet targets after a few years, they are subject to a state takeover, staff replacement or conversion to a self-governing public school known as a charter.
Among the cheerleaders for No Child Left Behind are the Business Roundtable, which has dubbed the act "a life preserver" for public education, and the National Alliance of Black School Educators, which credits the new focus on testing with narrowing the achievement gap between whites and nonwhites.
As evidence, they and the Education Trust, a group that closely monitors achievement levels among ethnic groups, recently applauded California and eight other states -- North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, Alaska, Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia -- for raising the proportion of schools making Adequate Yearly Progress by at least 10 percentage points.
The groups point out that those states educate nearly a third of the nation's black and poor students, and nearly 40 percent of Latino students.
Kerry's aides say he supports the 2014 deadline for 100 percent student proficiency on tests, despite criticism from many educators who ridicule the notion as embodying the "Lake Wobegon effect" -- a paradox in which all children are above average.
Kerry's aides say he also supports most current provisions in No Child Left Behind. He would preserve the new access that Bush has given military recruiters who want high school students' contact information (students can opt out), and he would continue to let religious groups tutor students.
But aides say Kerry would restore federal funding for sex education, which Bush ended for all but abstinence instruction.
San Francisco Chronicle
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