- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

The nation is debating the priorities of the coming four years, rightly focusing on national security and the economy. But in education, as well, the debate could not be more important.

Will we move forward, capitalizing on the growing success of recent reforms, or will we instead retreat from the challenges of change?

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), enacted in 2002, is not the first important federal education law — it’s just the first to have an impact. And because of its success, the law’s critics are working overtime to undermine it.

It’s instructive to remember where we were four years ago. The federal government spent hundreds of billions of dollars on education since establishing its role in public education in the 1960s. Yet as spending escalated, student achievement remained stubbornly flat. Low-income students were left unprepared, with little chance to achieve the American dream.

Subsequent tinkering and billions more dollars did little to change this. In fact, the achievement gap between whites and minorities widened in the 1990s. In response to this worsening crisis, Congress passed and the president signed NCLB, ushering in a new education era.

For the first time, students — especially those from low-income homes — trapped in persistently underperforming schools are empowered to choose a better school or tutoring services.

Parents now have report cards on schools and districts, telling them which are succeeding and why. Teachers and principals now have annual testing data, providing critical information on student progress to help shape lesson plans and set goals. And for the first time, there are consequences for not making progress in educating all students.

In exchange for this accountability, states and districts get more money and more flexibility than ever, to spend on programs that meet schools’ unique and most urgent needs.

Make no mistake. No Child Left Behind is a culture shift. We shouldn’t expect overnight success — all major initiatives take time to be refined and perfected.

But this law is already working. Consider the following:

• Parents and students have more help. Innovative educational services for parents and children outside schools — from charter schools to tutorial services to faith-based educational enrichment services — are more widely available than ever before.

• Kids are achieving more. Fourth-grade testing reflects overall reading and math improvement. These results are expected to multiply as more of the law’s provisions take effect.

• More is being spent, but it’s being spent more wisely. Funding for low-income schools — the largest NCLB account — has grown 52 percent since the last Clinton administration budget. And funding for special education has increased 75 percent. Importantly, these funds are now targeted to the greatest need. Schools that receive these funds are held accountable for their students’ progress.

• When President Bush took office, only 11 states were in compliance with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1994. Just 18 months after the Mr. Bush signed NCLB into law, the Education Department had approved accountability plans for all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

• An annual report in July by the Education Commission of the States found that not since the 1970s, when the government passed landmark acts to help disabled children and prevent sexual discrimination, have states become so active.

• Last November, more than 100 superintendents from predominantly African-American and Latino school districts wrote a letter to Congress, the White House and all the Democratic presidential aspirants. Their message: “Don’t turn back the clock” on the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

All these signs bode well for the future.

Unfortunately, a political coalition has unleashed a flurry of misinformation. The law does not reward complacency or the low expectations of the status quo. For this reason, some are threatened by the rigors of change.

It is our good fortune the president is undeterred by such cynicism. Instead, he has outlined a second-term agenda designed to build on the progress of NCLB at all education levels, making sure children are prepared to start school, students receive the best education available and graduates are prepared for higher education or other pursuits and are well-trained to compete in the 21st-century work force.

I hope we can spend the next four years building on our success, rather than turning back the clock.

Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, is chairman of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

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