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No Child Left BehindReally? Why I like this law.
by Bill Byrne

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Bill Byrne, a West Virginia lawyer who represents special-needs children and their parents, wrote an Op-Ed article for the Sunday Gazette Mail.

No Child Left Behind — Really? Why I like this law

I am an attorney who represents children with disabilities. For more than 25 years, I have watched school after school “drop the ball” — and not give proper education services to disabled children. The only recourse is for courageous and determined parents to take on school systems and make them follow the law, often leading to costly and painful lawsuits.

The federal No Child Left Behind law changes all this, and puts the burden on school systems to show that schools are doing their job. The law requires schools to be accountable for the progress of students — all students — not just “the best and the brightest.”

The law requires schools to test all children to see where they are, to establish a baseline, and then to measure progress. Importantly, schools can’t lump all kids together so that the bright ones bring up the average for all. Schools have to measure progress in subgroups, so we can see on annual report cards how the school is doing with disabled kids, poor kids, minority kids and kids of migratory workers for whom English is a second language. These are the groups of kids who historically get left behind.

In addition to this report card aspect, there are provisions for reading programs, tutoring and teacher improvement. There is valid criticism about these provisions being an “unfunded mandate,” but history teaches us that this kind of criticism puts the cart before the horse. If we waited for “adequate funding” for anything important, we’d never get anywhere. Like wheelchair ramps and nonsmoking sections, the law has to demand certain behavior and accountability — and then the system finds the money to follow the law.

Some say that No Child Left Behind is an indirect attack on public education, by those who want vouchers in lieu of public schools. But this is a diversion. The fact is that in many, many public schools, kids with disabilities are not learning to read and do math — while the vast majority of them can master these skills with proper instruction. I see nothing valuable in allowing a child (disabled or otherwise) to pass through the public education system for 12 years without learning to read and do math.

The best way to support public education and the civic benefits it offers over private education is to make it work — for all children. By making schools specifically accountable for the education of these children, the law will serve to close the gap between disabled kids and the luckier ones.

Why aren’t children with disabilities learning basic skills? From my vantage point as an advocate for children with disabilities, I have seen time and time again that school systems simply ignore the fact that children in segregated special-education classrooms are not learning to read or do math. Minuscule progress is cited to “pat everyone on the back,” and then baby-sitting continues until the child becomes so bored and frustrated that he or she no longer wants to attend school. Then, when the child is made to attend, under pain of truancy, the child becomes a “behavior problem.”

These “behavior problems” are, in fact, usually directly related to feeling “dumb” and “out of it” because the child can’t read well enough to keep up. This is a very convenient time for the system to “blame the child.”

No Child Left Behind will short-circuit all of the excuses and explanations. School systems that do a good job with children with disabilities will show their progress, and those that fail to do a good job will have their ineffectiveness exposed. Then parents and voters can make informed decisions about how to get the underachievers on track.

But get this — as I write this piece, I have just received an e-mail message saying that Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is sponsoring an amendment that would exclude disabled children from the law. If this cockeyed proposal is adopted, we can change the law’s name to Leave Children with Disabilities Behind!

No Child Left Behind is the best thing that has happened in a long time for the millions of children with disabilities and their families. Let’s make it work for all of us!

Contact Information
William F. Byrne
Byrne & Hedges
141 Walnut Street
Morgantown, WV 26505
(304) 296-0123

Bill Byrne of Morgantown is a lawyer who represents special-needs children and their families.

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