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PRESIDENTIAL candidate George W. Bush wanted a simple, fail-safe plan even he could articulate in a way that would attract voters who favor improving public education.
This is a smart strategy because very few Americans see no room for improvement in the nation's public schools. Those few would be good examples of why there is room for improvement in the nation's public schools.
The Bush campaign called its proposal the No Child Left Behind Act, and it served his purpose perfectly. It was a straightforward, far-reaching plan to bring accountability to public-school education, a plan easy to sum up and explain at almost any campaign stop.
As promised, NCLB legislation was submitted to Congress soon after Bush took office. In a rare show of bipartisanship, both chambers of Congress passed the new president's legislation with overwhelming majorities.
Here's what the law requires school systems to do:
Set standards right away for reading and math, and test students to ensure their progress.
Increase flexibility in how local school systems spend federal money.
Give parents the opportunity to choose the school their children will attend.
Put a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom.
All school systems must show progress toward these goals and eventually comply if they expect to receive U.S. education funds.
Such policy objectives are difficult to argue against. These lofty and expensive goals are needed if public education is to be fixed and American children are to compete in an ever more challenging, international environment.
The problem with campaign strategies, no matter how popular or how well-intentioned, is that they can prove difficult to translate into a real-world setting. And when the euphoria wears off, people start asking questions.
Two years, an economic downturn, and a war on terrorism later, the preferred answer from the administration regarding its education policies seems to be: "Here's some money. Just do it."
At a recent policy forum in Washington hosted by the National Center on Education and the Economy, and sponsored by a couple of think tanks on opposite sides of the political spectrum, the depth of the challenge facing the states came into perspective.
It is evident that unless the states get substantial, ongoing guidance on how to spend the money coming their way under No Child Left Behind, even the most laudable goals will become pie-in-the-sky memories.
Accountability, gained by setting standards and administering tests, is a huge part of the program. Because state and local control is a hallmark of the GOP philosophy, the states are to come up with their own standards and tests.
Now there's a porcupine if there ever was one.
Are the standards in State A on par with the standards in State B? Does that matter? Are the tests fair, and do they accurately reflect students' attainment of the standards?
Some parents fear that because NCLB focuses on underachieving schools and students, their brighter children will be left behind and unchallenged.
Virginia already has the Standards of Learning, a program in which the state takes pride in developing. Is there some overlap here? The SOLs sparked an ongoing debate over excessive testing of students, especially young ones. Do they prompt teachers to "teach to the test?" Are students really learning or just memorizing?
Testing required under No Child Left Behind will only magnify those issues.
Granting the states greater flexibility in the way they spend federal dollars is a nest of hornets waiting to swarm. Ratings on public-access cable channels will soar as viewers tune into school board meetings in anticipation of fights breaking out over funding for family-life classes, or what books are being bought for the library.
If states and localities are given wide discretion over how money is spent, what students are taught in Minnesota will be very different from what they're taught in Mississippi. How do you compare those test results? Are some sort of national standards needed?
School choice means different things to different people. A young couple starting a family in the Fredericksburg area can learn about the school systems, move to a selected locality, or even near a particular school--and then hope attendance lines don't change.
They can even add private schools to the equation if they've got the funds.
But what do you do if you're a low-income single parent whose local school is a frightening mix of violence and dysfunction? Moving to a nice neighborhood with a nice school isn't going to happen. That's where charter schools and vouchers become the only avenues of choice. Both of those options carry tons of philosophical and logistical baggage.
And what about the school that stands out, the one where all parents want their children to go? The Bush administration suggests that limits on class size--the very reason that this hypothetical school excelled--would have to be set aside.
Finally, NCLB requires a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom--starting in 2005 in the core subjects. Such a teacher has a bachelor's degree, full state certification, and has demonstrated competence in the subject taught. One way to achieve that is--you guessed it--by taking a test.
Is there standardization of those tests? Do they also relate to the state standards that the students must meet?
While all of this is sorted out, it remains up to parents to get their kids off to the best possible start. A young child who is read to and is encouraged to read will have a head start in school and in life. Tests will be things to conquer, not fear.
If schools had more students who really yearn to learn, schools and teachers wouldn't find themselves the scapegoats.
RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.