Federal enforcers of the No Child Left Behind Act need to win local support to close the school achievement gap between white and minority children, Nina Rees, assistant deputy education secretary, told a Washington forum yesterday.
“We’re not convinced the message is seeping in fast enough at the local level to make the difference,” Mrs. Rees told a Cato Institute audience that included a Utah state legislator who led a successful rebellion against federal control of schools in her state.
Faced with tough criticism of unconstitutional consolidation of power in Washington over schools, Mrs. Rees said enforcement of the law has become the Department of Education’s greatest challenge since NCLB’s inception three years ago.
“We’re going to take a hard line against states that have blatantly violated the law,” she said, citing sanctions against Georgia and Minnesota for dragging their feet on student testing and against Texas for failing to determine adequate yearly progress of schools on time.
State Rep. Margaret Dayton, the Republican lawmaker who forged near-unanimous bipartisan support in Utah’s state legislature for her bill to put state academic requirements ahead of the federal dictates on states’ rights grounds, said federal requirements are too stringent. She said the call for 100 percent student grade-level proficiency in reading and math by 2014 is at odds with federal statutes for education of handicapped children.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not require grade-level proficiency for children with learning disabilities, but instead calls for individual education plans so that handicapped students can “achieve at their ultimate best level” according to their own abilities, she said.
“I think it is really an immoral thing to test these children above their ability,” Mrs. Dayton told the forum.
Lawrence A. Uzzell, a department policy official during the Reagan administration, leveled a stinging critique comparing the federal act to Soviet-style top-down micromanagement.
“The administration recognizes that the educational policies of the last four decades, a period of almost uninterrupted centralization, have failed, but its remedy is yet more centralization,” Mr. Uzzell said in a Cato paper prepared for the forum.
Both states and the federal government have failed to issue honest and reliable reports about student proficiency, teacher quality and academic progress of schools, he said.
Mr. Uzzell said the law “creates huge incentives for states to make tests easier.”
“Students are being measured by a rubber yardstick,” he said.
However, Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and senior scholar of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said the law is “empowering people with more information than they’ve ever had before” about public school accomplishments.
“The sunshine elements will be its greatest success,” he said.