Wednesday, February 23, 2005

State legislators across the country yesterday began a push to get more flexibility for states and local schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The National Conference of State Legislatures released an 87-page report that says No Child Left Behind conflicts with Supreme Court constraints on how Congress can impose strings with federal grants because “it uses coercion and not financial inducement to attain state participation,” the report said.

In particular, the report criticized as “overly prescriptive and rigid” the law’s requirements for students to be tested yearly from third to eighth grade for “adequate yearly progress” in reading and mathematics.

“Our bipartisan review shows that in order to reach the No Child Left Behind Act’s lofty expectations, changes need to be made in the law’s foundation,” said Maryland state Delegate John Adams Hurson, Montgomery County Democrat and president of the national conference.

The report’s arguments, which mirror objections by nine state legislatures that are considering challenges to the law, said yearly progress should be determined by tracking students in the “same group over time,” not by demographic groups. It said the law’s focus on demographic subgroups only highlights achievement gaps between white and minority students.

The Bush administration warned that the national conference’s action “could be interpreted as wanting to reverse the progress we’ve made.”

“We will not reverse course,” said Ray Simon, U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. “Children must be challenged to reach their full potential, not told to settle for someone else’s lowered expectations.”

The report also criticized No Child Left Behind’s requirement that all students with disabilities be proficient in reading and math by the 2013-14 school year.

“This is a laudable but unrealistic goal, which cannot be realized because it removes students from the special education subgroup when they reach the standard for their grade level,” said the report, written by a 24-member task force. Six legislators on the task force have authored state legislation disputing the law’s constitutionality or key accountability provisions.

The report also challenged the law’s provision that permits students in low-performing schools to transfer to schools not labeled as needing improvement.

“School choice is difficult in an urban area where many other schools in the district are identified as needing improvement; and it is difficult in rural areas because of the long distances between schools,” it said.

The report noted that the administration and Congress have “dramatically increased funding to K-12 education since passage of No Child Left Behind” ” a total of $10.4 billion yearly since the law passed in 2001.

“It is a lot of money, but when it is spread among 50 states and thousands of schools and school districts, it is still a relatively meager increase in total K-12 expenditures,” the report said. “In the best-case scenario, federal funding marginally covers the costs of complying with the administrative processes of the law.”

However, Mr. Simon said there would be no backing away from the goals and requirements to help all children achieve “regardless of their skin color, spoken accent or street address.”

“The law, just three years old, is already working. There have been improvements in states across the nation and the pernicious achievement gap that has existed for decades is finally starting to close,” he said.

“No Child Left Behind is bringing new hope and new opportunity to families throughout America, and we will not reverse course.”

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