Seeks To Leave Bush Law Behind
by Jo Becker and Rosalind S. Helderman, Washington Post,
January 24, 2004
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Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates sharply
criticized President Bush's signature education program Friday,
calling the No Child Left Behind Act an unfunded mandate that
threatens to undermine the state's own efforts to improve
By a vote of 98 to 1, the House passed a resolution calling on
Congress to exempt states like Virginia from the program's
requirements. The law "represents the most sweeping intrusions
into state and local control of education in the history of the
United States," the resolution says, and will cost "literally
millions of dollars that Virginia does not have."
The federal law aims to improve the performance of students,
teachers and schools with yearly tests and serious penalties for
failure. In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Bush said
that "the No Child Left Behind Act is opening the door of
opportunity to all of America's children."
Officials in other states also have complained about the effects
of the act, signed into law in 2002. But Friday's action in the
Virginia House represents one of the strongest formal criticisms
to date from a legislative chamber controlled by the president's
The House action came after months of complaints from local and
state educators that the federal law conflicts with Virginia's
Standards of Learning testing program, in place since 1998 and
considered one of the toughest in the nation.
No Republicans voted against the resolution, a fact that House
Education Committee Chairman James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax)
said is proof that "the damn law is ludicrous."
"I'm all in favor of accountability and higher standards, but
Virginia already has a system in place," said Republican House
Caucus Chairman R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta). "This could cost
us more money than the money coming in from the federal
Eugene W. Hickok, the acting deputy secretary of the U.S.
Department of Education, said his agency is working to provide
states with more flexibility, but he added that money is not the
issue. According to his agency, Virginia has $170 million in
unspent federal education funds available, dating to 2000.
"The resolution essentially says that if states feel like they
have been doing a good job, we should give them the money and
leave them alone. What state wouldn't say that?" he said. "This
law is perhaps a challenge for us to implement, but it is the
first comprehensive attempt to make sure that every child
everywhere counts. To say no to that is a typical thing for the
states to do."
But the resolution reflects a growing concern among Republicans
about the program.
As a result of a Republican legislative initiative in Ohio, the
state commissioned a study released this month that found the
federal government had significantly underfunded No Child Left
In North Dakota, a resolution sponsored by Democrats that stated
the "cost to states of implementing the No Child Left Behind Act
of 2001 is as yet unclear" was passed by both the
Republican-controlled House and Senate. And the Republican
legislature in Utah is considering legislation to forgo the
federal money and opt out of the program entirely.
"The Virginia resolution is the strongest-worded
Republican-sponsored initiative to pass," said Scott Young, an
education policy specialist at the National Conference of State
He also said that "there is definitely a bipartisan backlash in
Democrats, who plan to make the No Child Left Behind Act a major
issue in this year's presidential and congressional elections,
seized upon the Virginia House's action. "These Republicans
realize what others have for quite a while, which is that No
Child Left Behind is just a campaign slogan and it doesn't offer
real hope for kids," said Tony Welch, spokesman for the
Democratic National Committee.
The only delegate to vote against the resolution was a Democrat,
Lionell Spruill Sr. (Chesapeake).
Under Virginia's system, students take the SOL exams in English,
history, math and science in third, fifth and eighth grades and
in high school. For a school to remain fully accredited by the
state, 70 percent of its students must pass the exams. Starting
this year, students also must pass six high school SOL exams to
No Child Left Behind requires that every student be proficient
in reading and math by the 2013-14 school year. If schools don't
make "adequate yearly progress" toward that goal, they risk
expensive consequences. Some might be forced to pay for their
students to attend higher-performing schools elsewhere, while
others would be forced to draw up detailed plans to improve.
The problem, some educators say, is that the No Child Left
Behind Act has introduced a different way of judging whether
schools are succeeding. It is not enough for 70 percent of
students to pass the test. The federal law requires that
everyone -- including minorities, students from low-income homes
and those with special needs -- meet the same annual goals.
Many schools that have long gotten top marks from the state have
now been told they are not making "adequate yearly progress," a
confusing situation for parents, according to Virginia Board of
Education President Thomas M. Jackson Jr.
Educators nationwide have criticized the law for its testing
requirements for students who are enrolled in special education
classes and those who don't speak English. Virginia educators
say they have found a better way, requiring special education
students to take SOL tests only if their personalized education
plan calls for them to do so and exempting immigrant children
until they have learned English.
"To expect a youngster newly arrived in this country to take and
pass an exam in English, it's ridiculous," said Fairfax County
School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech.
Hickok said a "surprising number of students" with special
educational challenges in Virginia are not being tested, a
situation that could skew the state results. He said he is
working with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and officials in other
states to shape better rules for students with limited English
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