In all the world, the
loneliest people must be that handful of men and women of
the Department of Education dispatched by the Bush
administration to wander the country, defending the new No
Child Left Behind Act. Talk about friendless.
Michael Sentance, the
department's Northeast representative, sat before Vermont's
joint House-Senate committee on education not long ago, and
sustained two hours of hammering by Republicans and
Democrats alike. You never saw such bipartisan contempt. He
looked miserable, but as he bobbed and weaved through the
questions, this Bush appointee remained polite and
understated. "It is an audacious and challenging piece of
legislation," he conceded. "No doubt about it."
No doubt about it. Think of
it from Mr. Sentance's point of view.
How do you defend a law that
is likely to result in 85 percent of public schools in
America being labeled failing — based on a single test
score? Audacious, indeed.
And how do you defend a law
demanding that schools have 100 percent of their children
reaching proficiency on state tests in the next decade, and
then provides a fraction of the resources state educators
say is necessary to help the poor, the foreign born, the
handicapped meet those standards?
Democrats and Republicans
wanted to know. Did Mr. Sentance really believe, given
poverty's daunting effects, that 100 percent of children
could pass state exams?
"That remains to be seen,"
replied Mr. Sentance.
And how do you defend a law
that gives the federal government unprecedented control over
"failing" schools — that tells local school boards when they
must fire their principals and teachers — even though it
pays a small fraction (7 percent) of public education costs?
Crawford, the Republican chairman of the House committee,
urged that the law be modified for rural states like
Vermont. And Senator James Condos, the Democratic chairman,
explained why this law was so despised in Vermont, a state
with one of the most successful testing and assessment
programs in the nation. "What the federal government is
asking us to do is dump our state educational system," he
said. "That's what's gnawing at people." Senator Condos and
Representative Crawford wondered, Could the federal
government be a flexible?
Poor Mr. Sentance. His hands
were tied. "Probably a lot less flexibility than people are
looking for," he said.
The Vermonters were peeved.
The state already has its own fiscal crisis — a record 40
towns voting down school budgets — and now they were faced
with this underfinanced federal mandate. The law allows up
to $7 billion in additional federal aid this year, but
President Bush has a war to finance — he may need $10
billion for Turkey alone — and could spare just $1 billion
extra for left-behind children.
William Reedy, legal counsel
for Vermont's education department, opened the 669-page law
to Sec. 9527.A. "Nothing in this act," it says, shall
mandate a state "to spend any funds or incur any costs not
paid for under this act." Mr. Reedy wondered, If the federal
government didn't pay what the states needed, were states
freed from having to comply?
Mr. Sentance bobbed and
weaved madly, but Mr. Reedy kept asking. Finally Mr.
Sentance said, "The act is paid for, and we are paying what
we should be paying for." The room went silent. A rare
moment of candor. Now they understood. Whatever the
president appropriated was the exact amount needed. There
was no escape.
As I travel the country, I
find nearly universal contempt for this noble-sounding law
signed last year by President Bush. Tom Horne, the
Republican state education commissioner of Arizona, and Tom
Watkins, the Democratic commissioner of Michigan, sound
virtually alike in their criticisms. The only difference is
that Mr. Horne emphasizes that he admires the president and
supports his intent, it's just that many of the details are
In January, Mr. Horne flew
to Washington for 37 meetings in three days with federal
officials, pleading for flexibility. He is hopeful, but has
no commitments yet. He is particularly concerned — as is Mr.
Watkins of Michigan — with the adequate-yearly-progress
provision. Under the law, to avoid being labeled "failing,"
a typical school must make a 5 percent gain a year on state
But even if a school does
that, it can still be labeled failing. If just one subgroup
in one grade fails to make 5 percent — poor children, black
children, limited English speakers, the handicapped, third
graders, black fifth graders — the school is labeled
Mr. Horne and Mr. Watkins
expect 85 percent of their schools to be declared failing,
and that, Mr. Horne said, would be a "train wreck." Mr.
Horne says schools should be held accountable, but as a
conservative, he also believes children and parents should
be. Under this law, he says, you can have a great teacher
working with poor children, and the children make two years'
progress in one year, but they still do not meet the
proficiency standard and that school is labeled failing. And
you can have bad teachers at a rich school with good test
takers labeled a success. "Arizona will have good schools
punished just because they're from poor areas," he said. As
for the 100 percent proficiency standard? "Definitely
impossible," Mr. Horne said.
Michigan was recently
informed by the federal government that even newly arrived
immigrants must take all state tests in English. Mr. Watkins
points out that Michigan's math test consists of 35 word
problems. "Is it educationally sound to give a math test and
say students don't know math when they do — they just can't
read the problems?" he said. The government was adamant.
Michigan was ordered to test in English or be penalized $1
"It's time for the feds to
come to the heartland and listen," Mr. Watkins said. "They
must do away with the bad and ugly in the law. It's turning
into a vehicle to bash our teachers and kids."
At the end of that two-hour
hearing in Vermont, I asked Mr. Sentance how his No Child
Left Behind legislative tour was going. "The Connecticut
session went on for three hours," he said. And were they
hostile, too? "They had lots of questions," he said,
before slipping away.