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IMPLEMENTATION OF NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT MEETS WITH OBSTACLES AT STATE AND LOCAL LEVEL

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"where nearly half or more of schools are not meeting the new benchmarks and where a few thousand voters could decide which presidential candidate wins each state in 2004."

With thousands of schools “needing improvement” nationwide, parents, teachers, and citizens around the country are beginning to realize the implications of the No Child Left Behind Act. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the No Child Left Behind Act, one of the Administration’s signature pieces of legislation, could come back to haunt the President and congressional Republicans during the 2004 elections. Nationwide, voters are opening their newspapers and discovering as many as half of the schools in their state are being labeled “in need of improvement.”

As reported by the Washington Post, David Winston, a pollster for congressional Republicans, warned that Democrats have been able to pull ahead of Republicans on the education issue in recent polls. What was once a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats in January 2002 when NCLB was signed into law has grown to a 50-36 advantage for Democrats. According to the Post article, this advantage may play a key role in the 2004 presidential election in swing states such as Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, and West Virginia “where nearly half or more of schools are not meeting the new benchmarks and where a few thousand voters could decide which presidential candidate wins each state in 2004.”

Earlier this year, during the National Governors Association’s winter meetings in Washington, D.C., Republican and Democratic governors alike asked for help in meeting demands for stepped-up homeland security, financing the increasing costs of special education, and implementing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). While most governors praise the law’s intent, they stress that, without additional support from the federal government, they will be unable to truly “leave no child behind”-especially during this time of state budget shortfalls which often require cuts in education.

The Post article uses West Virginia as an example of how NCLB and the federal tax cuts could affect the 2004 presidential election. Because the state links its tax rates to the federal government’s tax rate, President Bush’s recent round of tax cuts have drained revenue from the state treasury. As a result, some local governments have been forced to raise property taxes to pay for education.

According to West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise (D), the state has been a “poster child” for emulating the President’s policy at the state level. For education, it gave quick approval to its testing plan and shifted money around to fund it. It also “gave [its] citizens full advantage of the Bush tax cuts even though the state took a hit,” says Wise. As a result, state officials say that the state’s revenue has dropped by about $60 million during this fiscal year. At the same time, teachers and parents are wondering why 45 percent of the state’s schools have been labeled “in need of improvement” and why more has not been done to address this problem.

New Jersey Governor Faults NCLB Implementation for Listing Top Schools “In Need of Improvement”

New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey (D) has also asked for changes to the way that NCLB is being implemented. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Gov. McGreevey said the current implementation is highly flawed and leads to unfairly characterizing successful schools as failing, even those among the best in the nation. “As we have seen with the initial review of [adequate yearly progress] reports from states throughout the country,” he wrote, “many quality schools, including schools in New Jersey with proven records of student proficiency, are being falsely characterized as ‘in need of improvement.'”

In his letter, Gov. McGreevey specifically mentioned Ridgewood High School, “one of the finest schools in New Jersey, let alone the nation,” which appeared on the “in need of improvement” list-despite its 1,200 average SAT score-because “three special needs students did not take a required test.”

Some top suburban schools in Illinois are in a similar position. When test results are released next month, it is expected that Evanston Township and Oak Park and River Forest will appear on the state’s “in need of improvement” list. While these two schools have high scores overall, students in one of the subgroups specified by NCLB failed to meet state standards in math or reading. Under the law, schools must break down test scores by race, income level, gender, disability, and ethnicity. Schools are then judged by the progress of each group, rather than on an average score of all students.

New National Group Calls on Federal Officials to Consider NCLB Rewrite

The President and Congress have also drawn fire from a newly formed group of educators and civic leaders which is calling on Congress to rewrite NCLB by focusing less on punishing schools and more on outlining specific steps to help them improve. The group, Citizens for Effective Schools, notes that many states have chosen to lower their improvement goals and avoid sanctions rather than making systemic changes.

In Michigan, the group notes in a letter to Congress, officials have lowered their standards so that the percentage of students needed to pass a test for a school to meet Adequate Yearly Progress is now only 42 percent, much lower than the 75 percent previously required. Texas lowered the minimum passing score on its reading test. Twenty states have reduced the percentage of students who need to reach proficiency within the next few years in favor of sharp increases farther down the road.

Dan Langan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education told the New York Times that there were “no plans to amend the law.” He also noted that states and districts could adopt the changes proposed by the Citizens for Effective Schools without running afoul of NCLB.

In the last issue of Straight A’s, we reported that mayors-often the highest-ranking elected official in many communities-commonly find themselves first in line when it comes to accountability for a school’s performance. Now, that pressure is rising up the political ladder as governors see large numbers of their state’s schools on the “in need of improvement list.” Ultimately, although the presidential election is still over a year away, many political insiders fully expect the No Child Left Behind Act to play a large role in the 2004 election.

“Education Law May Hurt Bush” available at:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17509-2003Oct12.html

“Education Group Calls for Revised Law” available at:
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/16/education/16SCHO.html

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