Leave No State Behind?

President Bush's "Leave No Child Behind" education act is the largest federal intervention ever into the traditionally local domain of running public schools. Its admirable goal is to force better performance through standardized testing and strict accountability.

Such a momentous change was bound to cause tremors. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, for example, says his state might opt out of the federal program because Vermont already has good tests that would be expensive to replace. Taking that option would cost the state $26 million in federal education aid (see story, page 1).

Under the new law, aid hinges on adherence to such requirements as yearly testing in reading and math for Grades 4 through 8.

Officials in other states have raised doubts, too. Nebraska uses a menu of five tests, giving local districts the option of choosing among them. Its governor, Mike Johanns, backs the system and has said he'll fight to keep it, though there's doubt it'll pass muster under the new federal statute.

How much flexibility should states have in implementing the law? Some, like Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, worry that states will be given too much leeway in choosing tests. Without some uniformity, how can results be compared, even within states, and accountability enforced?

Others, certainly, will argue for the maximum degree of local flexibility, because that will allow states to tailor programs to local needs.

Another contention may arise as states calculate how many schools will be labeled "failing" under the new law. Louisiana expects three-quarters of its schools to fall into that category. The outlook isn't much better in many other states.

If schools continue to underperform, the law requires that parents be given the choice of switching schools or receiving tutoring for their children. That raises logistical and cost issues. Some states are complaining that the federal aid available under the law will be inadequate.

Such complaints are hardly surprising, and they're likely to get louder. The US Department of Education is still immersed in the process of drawing up rules for implementing the law. That process should include alleviation of some state concerns.

This law opens new territory that will bring challenges and require adjustments. The potential benefits for a wider range of American schoolchildren, however, should be ample incentive to keep at it.

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