- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

With Sen. John Kerry trying to shift attention to domestic issues, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has become a prime target. This law requires states and schools to set clear academic standards, measure student progress, and provide alternatives for students in low-performing schools.

Mr. Kerry’s election-season opposition to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is complicated by his earlier Senate vote in favor. John Kerry, when the NCLB Act came up for a vote, said: “This is groundbreaking legislation that enhances the federal government’s commitment to our nation’s public education system, dramatically reconfigures the federal role in public education and embraces many of the principles and programs that I believe are critical to improving the public education system.” His position now could be summed up: “I actually did vote for No Child Left Behind before I decided to be against it.”

What precisely do Mr. Kerry and other NCLB critics allege?

For starters, Mr. Kerry, echoing school officials, has claimed the Bush administration has underfunded NCLB’s mandates. But, let’s consider what the law actually demands. The law simply requires that districts hire qualified teachers, test students annually to make sure they can read and do math, focus reading instructional practices on what works, and ensure they have an alternative for any child attending a “school in need of improvement.” The shock is not that President Bush thought districts should take these common-sense steps, but that any district or union thinks such steps are extra work. Besides, the Bush administration has increased education spending nearly 40 percent, hardly miserly, especially in a time of war.

A particular sore spot for NCLB critics is that it entitles students now trapped in failing schools to transfer to better schools. Here, teachers and principals (sometimes joined by affluent white parents) are trying to block low-performing students from getting into the better public schools. In response, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, formerly President Clinton’s antitrust chief, recently announced he simply would not put into effect the transfer option in the largest U.S. public school district, capping transfers arbitrarily and illegally at 1,000 or less of the 400,000 eligible students. Similar noncompliance, though perhaps not as striking, occurs in Chicago and other cities.

Students in “schools in need of improvement” also are entitled to free tutoring in math or reading, tapping federal Title I monies. Here the districts frankly face a financial conflict-of-interest. If they comply fully with this NCLB provision, they can lose $1,000 or more for each student who avails himself of the new tutoring entitlement. If they don’t comply, they get to pocket the money, which sometimes totals millions of dollars.

Thus, many districts either ignore the requirement or minimalistically comply. They may send out a form letter letting parents know of this option in confusing or vague bureaucratic language but engage in outright obstruction or no follow-up.

In Albany, New York’s state capital, the district failed to enter payment agreements with 16 of the 17 state-approved providers in the city, and only arranged for tutoring for one child out of 1,400 eligible middle-school students. That’s right, just one. Even this one child only received services because litigation was threatened. Despite the district’s best (or worst) efforts, the sole student receiving tutoring jumped two grade levels on reading since the tutoring began earlier this year, progress denied the many other children illegally prevented from receiving NCLB tutoring.

What each of these district actions suggests clearly is the need for strengthening the enforcement provisions of No Child Left Behind. President Bush was perhaps too optimistic when he assumed school officials would comply with, rather than subvert, a law expanding educational opportunities.

In a recent report on NCLB implementation, the Education Commission of the States urged federal and state leaders, as their No. 1 recommendation, to “embrace NCLB as a civil rights issue” — as indeed it is. Those who would roll back NCLB should reflect on what they will leave in their wake — boys and girls, overwhelmingly poor and typically minority, trapped in failing schools against their will, and illiterate and innumerate students denied the tutoring they deserve.

As we enter the final weeks of the presidential campaign, education rightfully will move to center stage. Let’s hope a real debate over the merits of the No Child Left Behind Act breaks out. The promise of NCLB — that literally no child will be left behind ? is admittedly ambitious, perhaps even utopian. But, what’s the alternative?

Thomas W. Carroll is president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability based in Albany, N.Y.

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