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Rescuing Education Reform

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March 2, 2004

Democratic presidential candidates have discovered that there's no more surefire applause line than an attack on the No Child Left Behind Act. The law was meant to deliver on President Bush's promise to improve public school education. But many teachers and school districts resent being forced to meet the law's tough standards. Some of the strongest resistance has come from Republican states like Utah, which are considering laws that would limit their compliance.

The Bush administration has the high ground here. Although the program needs more funds and better administration, No Child Left Behind is tackling one of the nation's most critical problems: the substandard educational opportunities offered to poor and minority children.

Fifty years have sped by since the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the practice of confining black children to segregated and often inferior schools violated the Constitution and generally consigned African-Americans to second-class citizenship. Nevertheless, all around the country, poor children are still trapped in failing schools, which poison their futures from the very start.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was intended to fix this problem. It requires the states to adopt high standards for all children and to place a qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006 in exchange for federal dollars. The new law will need tinkering here and there. But its goal and its general road map for getting there are the right ones. For the effort to truly equalize education to succeed, Congress will need to fight off destructive schemes by lobbyists and bureaucrats of both parties who are working hard to undermine the new initiative and to preserve the bad old status quo.

No Child Left Behind was the result of one of George Bush's most famous campaign promises. But the Bush administration has sadly turned out to be part of the problem.

The Department of Education, under the inept leadership of Rod Paige, has been painfully slow in adopting regulations on how the states can comply with the law. The administration was forced by Congress to accept the most crucial provision, which requires the states to hire only qualified teachers, and it has failed to enforce that provision adequately.

One of the most serious complaints about the law is that the federal government is asking states for big improvements in local schools but is not providing the money to pay for such changes. The Bush administration is correct when it says that school financing went up sharply under the new law. The money for Title I, which is aimed at the poorest students, went up by nearly a third with proportionately more of the money going to the poorest districts. But the Title I allotment is also $6 billion short of what Congress authorized when it passed the law, and the amount states are getting is certainly not adequate to meet the tough standards the law sets.

A retrograde faction of Democrats wants to use the financing gap as an excuse for backing away from the law. Last year, for example, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois floated an amendment that would have exempted the states from complying at all until the federal government had paid out all of the money it had promised. The bill was morally indefensible and deserved to fail. Students are already entitled under law to quality education, no matter how poor the neighborhood in which they live. The fact that the federal government should be giving more aid does not exempt the states from their fundamental responsibilities.

Democratic legislators are also fearful of the National Education Association, the country's largest and most powerful teachers' union. The union has a history of vigorously resisting standards-based change and is dead set against making teachers subject to federally dictated qualification and performance standards. While Mr. Paige made an egregious error in referring to the union as a "terrorist organization," the N.E.A. has not served the cause of quality education well in this fight, particularly when it attempts to turn suburban parents against the new law.

Instead of pandering to the law's opponents, whoever wins the Democratic nomination needs to seize what may be the country's last opportunity to achieve basic fairness in public education. That means standing up to wavering Democrats who are eager for a chance to jump ship.


Learn More: No Child Left Behind


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