Plenty to Debate and Litigate
Debate over the No Child Left Behind education reform law dominated education news in 2004. Among other big stories were the naming of a new secretary of education and discussion of school desegregation 50 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. A recap:
No Child Left Behind
In September, 21/2 years after President Bush signed No Child Left Behind, his far-reaching education law, Education Secretary Rod Paige declared that "the debate is over." The law is working, he said.
But critics, such as George Mason University professor Gerald Bracey, say the law is hurting education; he complains of its "octopodic engulfing of schools." Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington advocacy group, acknowledges that the law, with its increased testing and "watch lists" of underperforming schools, is here to stay, for better or worse.
"In a way, it's the story that didn't make the news. This reform is becoming more and more part of everyday life," he says.
Paige's declaration notwithstanding, 2004 brought dozens of efforts in state legislatures — many Republican-controlled — and school districts to blunt the effects of the law or exempt schools. States included Utah, Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota and New Mexico.
All of the efforts failed, but they helped persuade federal officials to soften provisions on rural schools and testing disabled and non-English-speaking students.
"After much saber-rattling, very few districts and absolutely no states ended up seceding," says Alexander Russo, who runs the Web log thisweekineducation.com. "There's too much money involved, too many questions that would flow to states that pulled out and, in the end, too many easier ways to dilute or bypass many of the law's requirements."
Paige under fire
An incident in February didn't help Education Secretary Rod Paige's chilly relationship with teachers' groups: Paige angered teachers when, during a White House meeting with governors, he called the nation's largest teachers union a "terrorist organization." Paige later said he was joking but stood by his claim that the 2.7 million-member National Education Association uses "obstructionist scare tactics" to oppose Bush's education reforms.
Changes at the top
After more than 31/2 years in Washington, Paige resigned in November, saying Bush's education reforms "have been well launched." Though his resignation after Bush's re-election was no surprise, Bush announced it in unusual fashion: On Nov. 12, an unidentified White House official told the Associated Press that Paige "has been looking at leaving."
Paige, 71, resigned three days later, saying in a letter that this is "an appropriate time for me to return to Texas where I can devote attention to a personal project, which I began planning prior to assuming my present responsibilities." An aide later said Paige was remodeling his Houston home.
Two days later, Bush nominated White House domestic policy adviser Margaret Spellings to succeed Paige. A longtime Bush adviser, Spellings, 46, has overseen broad areas of domestic policy, including justice and housing. White House political strategist Karl Rove last fall called her "the most influential woman in Washington that you've never heard of."
Charter schools gain ground
It was a big year for charter schools — public schools that are allowed to operate with freedom from most regulations, including requirements that they hire unionized teachers or follow most district protocols for instruction, hiring and purchasing. They've been championed by the Bush administration, as well as by many reformers with a distaste for vouchers.
A handful of studies questioning the effectiveness of charter schools raised hackles on both sides of the debate, with advocates downplaying criticisms and opponents saying charter schools are a failed reform.
But 405 new charter schools opened in 2004, making it one of their best years ever, says the Center for Education Reform, an advocacy group.
"Regardless of where the data is or what one believes, I think '04 will go down as the year more people paid attention to charter schools than any other previous year," says Jeanne Allen, the center's president. "Which tells you that they've reached critical mass — they've become credible."
Voucher debate escalates
Congress approved the first federally funded voucher program, giving 1,300 students in low-performing Washington, D.C., public schools up to $7,500 in taxpayer funds to attend a private school. Supporters see it as a decisive victory in their efforts to bring more private competition into public school. But critics say vouchers drain money from strapped public schools, and that private schools are exempt from the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind.
Meanwhile, courts in Florida and Colorado struck down state voucher programs as unconstitutional. Florida's program was used by about 700 students; Colorado's program was to begin in 2004.
Evolution under fire
Seventy-nine years after the Scopes Monkey Trial, a lawsuit by suburban Atlanta parents and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged a Cobb County, Ga., school board policy that placed disclaimer stickers on high school biology textbooks calling evolution "a theory, not a fact." Schools officials said they'd ordered the stickers after more than 2,000 parents complained that the books presented evolution as factual without giving space to "intelligent design" and other quasi-religious ideas about life's origins.
The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State this month sued the Dover Area School Board in Pennsylvania over its decision to require biology teachers to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United said intelligent design "has about as much to do with science as reality television has to do with reality."
Segregation, 50 years later
Half a century after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1954 ending racial segregation in public schools, several studies showed that many schools are still racially isolated and that segregation in several urban areas is worse today than in decades past, when courts forced school districts to integrate.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES