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Article of Interest - No Child Left Behind

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Bridges4Kids LogoVirginia Seeks To Leave Bush Law Behind
by Jo Becker and Rosalind S. Helderman, Washington Post, January 24, 2004
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The 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 students' performance.

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 own party.

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 government."

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 Behind.

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 Legislatures.

He also said that "there is definitely a bipartisan backlash in the states."

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 graduate.

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 skills.


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