[ProgressiveEd] NYTimes.com Article: A Pervasive Dismay on a Bush School Law

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A Pervasive Dismay on a Bush School Law
March 19, 2003
In all the world, the loneliest people must be that handful
of men and women of the Department of Education dispatched
by the Bush administration to wander the country, defending
the new No Child Left Behind Act. Talk about friendless. 
Michael Sentance, the department's Northeast
representative, sat before Vermont's joint House-Senate
committee on education not long ago, and sustained two
hours of hammering by Republicans and Democrats alike. You
never saw such bipartisan contempt. He looked miserable,
but as he bobbed and weaved through the questions, this
Bush appointee remained polite and understated. "It is an
audacious and challenging piece of legislation," he
conceded. "No doubt about it." 
No doubt about it. Think of it from Mr. Sentance's point of
How do you defend a law that is likely to result in 85
percent of public schools in America being labeled failing
- based on a single test score? Audacious, indeed. 
And how do you defend a law demanding that schools have 100
percent of their children reaching proficiency on state
tests in the next decade, and then provides a fraction of
the resources state educators say is necessary to help the
poor, the foreign born, the handicapped meet those
Democrats and Republicans wanted to know. Did Mr. Sentance
really believe, given poverty's daunting effects, that 100
percent of children could pass state exams? 
"That remains to be seen," replied Mr. Sentance. 
And how
do you defend a law that gives the federal government
unprecedented control over "failing" schools - that tells
local school boards when they must fire their principals
and teachers - even though it pays a small fraction (7
percent) of public education costs? 
Representative Howard Crawford, the Republican chairman of
the House committee, urged that the law be modified for
rural states like Vermont. And Senator James Condos, the
Democratic chairman, explained why this law was so despised
in Vermont, a state with one of the most successful testing
and assessment programs in the nation. "What the federal
government is asking us to do is dump our state educational
system," he said. "That's what's gnawing at people."
Senator Condos and Representative Crawford wondered, Could
the federal government be a flexible? 
Poor Mr. Sentance. His hands were tied. "Probably a lot
less flexibility than people are looking for," he said. 
The Vermonters were peeved. The state already has its own
fiscal crisis - a record 40 towns voting down school
budgets - and now they were faced with this underfinanced
federal mandate. The law allows up to $7 billion in
additional federal aid this year, but President Bush has a
war to finance - he may need $10 billion for Turkey alone -
and could spare just $1 billion extra for left-behind
William Reedy, legal counsel for Vermont's education
department, opened the 669-page law to Sec. 9527.A.
"Nothing in this act," it says, shall mandate a state "to
spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this
act." Mr. Reedy wondered, If the federal government didn't
pay what the states needed, were states freed from having
to comply? 
Mr. Sentance bobbed and weaved madly, but Mr. Reedy kept
asking. Finally Mr. Sentance said, "The act is paid for,
and we are paying what we should be paying for." The room
went silent. A rare moment of candor. Now they understood.
Whatever the president appropriated was the exact amount
needed. There was no escape. 
As I travel the country, I find nearly universal contempt
for this noble-sounding law signed last year by President
Bush. Tom Horne, the Republican state education
commissioner of Arizona, and Tom Watkins, the Democratic
commissioner of Michigan, sound virtually alike in their
criticisms. The only difference is that Mr. Horne
emphasizes that he admires the president and supports his
intent, it's just that many of the details are bad. 
In January, Mr. Horne flew to Washington for 37 meetings in
three days with federal officials, pleading for
flexibility. He is hopeful, but has no commitments yet. He
is particularly concerned - as is Mr. Watkins of Michigan -
with the adequate-yearly-progress provision. Under the law,
to avoid being labeled "failing," a typical school must
make a 5 percent gain a year on state test scores. 
But even if a school does that, it can still be labeled
failing. If just one subgroup in one grade fails to make 5
percent - poor children, black children, limited English
speakers, the handicapped, third graders, black fifth
graders - the school is labeled failing. 
Mr. Horne and Mr. Watkins expect 85 percent of their
schools to be declared failing, and that, Mr. Horne said,
would be a "train wreck." Mr. Horne says schools should be
held accountable, but as a conservative, he also believes
children and parents should be. Under this law, he says,
you can have a great teacher working with poor children,
and the children make two years' progress in one year, but
they still do not meet the proficiency standard and that
school is labeled failing. And you can have bad teachers at
a rich school with good test takers labeled a success.
"Arizona will have good schools punished just because
they're from poor areas," he said. As for the 100 percent
proficiency standard? "Definitely impossible," Mr. Horne
Michigan was recently informed by the federal government
that even newly arrived immigrants must take all state
tests in English. Mr. Watkins points out that Michigan's
math test consists of 35 word problems. "Is it
educationally sound to give a math test and say students
don't know math when they do - they just can't read the
problems?" he said. The government was adamant. Michigan
was ordered to test in English or be penalized $1 million. 
"It's time for the feds to come to the heartland and
listen," Mr. Watkins said. "They must do away with the bad
and ugly in the law. It's turning into a vehicle to bash
our teachers and kids." 
At the end of that two-hour hearing in Vermont, I asked Mr.
Sentance how his No Child Left Behind legislative tour was
going. "The Connecticut session went on for three hours,"
he said. And were they hostile, too? "They had lots of
questions," he said, before slipping away.
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