Don't Leave 'No Child' Act Behind

US taxpayers demand results from their education money

This September, all states must have in place the basic requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush's signature education reform law, which was passed with bipartisan support four years ago.

Nationwide, students must start to be tested in reading and math annually from grades 3 through 8, and tested once in grades 10 through 12. And by 2014, all students in schools receiving federal funds must pass these standardized tests.

Despite being the most far-reaching education reform law in a generation, however, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is stirring a revolt in many states, especially those less dependent on federal education money. Many are calling for reforms or outright changes in the law - and more federal money to accompany them.

Several states have launched legal attacks, or are openly defying provisions of the law, which penalizes schools that fail to improve test scores in all racial and demographic groups.

It's sad to see that NCLB is running up against resistance to the act's primary goals: to provide all children with a quality education and to close the math and language achievement gaps between rich and poor, black and white, native and nonnative English speaking students.

A pro-Bush state leads the fight

Leading the protest is Utah, which gave President Bush his largest margin of victory in the last election. Its GOP-dominated legislature recently objected to the teacher qualification requirements, claiming they set the bar too high to attract qualified candidates, especially in rural areas.

Utah also fears that further exposure of a widening achievement gap between white and Hispanic students would make the state look bad. This concern is shared by Mr. Bush's own home state of Texas, which has unilaterally refused to test students with learning disabilities.

If Utah is the first, it is not likely to be the last to authorize local schools to ignore NCLB mandates that conflict with the state's less stringent testing requirements or that end up costing the state more dollars. Four other states are weighing similar legislation.

In addition, 15 states are considering bills to withdraw from the NCLB unless more federal funds accompany the mandates. NCLB allows states to opt out but the price is steep: forfeiture of federal Title I money - aid to poor inner-city students - an unrealistic option for states with large urban schools. And any state that does withdraw must face the perception that it's failing to educate its neediest students.

What are motives behind protests?

Are many largely rural states unwilling to pay the price to hire qualified teachers to educate Hispanic children? Are urban states, dominated by powerful teacher unions, leveraging the law to fatten paychecks first and student achievement second?

Pointing out an achievement gap is precisely what the law is designed to do. Identifying a problem pinpoints what needs to be fixed.

Fixing America's public schools is like turning an aircraft carrier around. One doesn't turn it quickly nor easily. It will be difficult to reorient the focus of teachers, schools, districts, and states to achieve the academic benchmarks called for in NCLB. The law recognizes this challenge by giving such a long lead time to comply.

Clearly, differences, some sharp, exist among and between the states and then again with the federal government on how to bring about education reform. Greater latitude for different approaches by the states must be allowed. It took three congressional budget cycles in the 1960s and '70s before Title I was on track.

NCLB's core must remain

The US Department of Education must continue to work closely with states to refine the law's regulations, and to learn from the experiences of states which already have rigorous testing. But the central thrust of NCLB - transparency by gathering statistics on essentially all students school by school through standardized testing in math and reading - must remain.

States have long had an option to not take federal education money. Now, American taxpayers are demanding to see results from that money, through NCLB.

The best result would be to lift the education levels of all students.

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