Legislators Demand Change in 'No Child Left Behind' Law

State lawmakers launched a withering bipartisan broadside at President Bush's signature education reform law, building pressure on the White House and Congress to relent and agree to relax the three-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the leading organization representing lawmakers in all 50 state capitols, concluded after a 10-month study that the law is unworkable and called for more than 40 changes to fix it.

The list, compiled by an NCSL task force and released Feb. 23, calls on the U.S. Education Department to give states more flexibility to meet some of the law's requirements, including waivers for state's own testing programs already in place. But many of the changes would require Congress to rewrite provisions of the law. In addition, state lawmakers demanded that Congress pony up the full expense of compliance, which NCSL last year estimated foisted $10 billion in extra costs on states.

"Our bipartisan review shows that in order to reach the No Child Left Behind Act's lofty expectations, changes need to be made in the law's foundation," said NCSL President John Hurson, a Democratic member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

State officials have been struggling to meet the demands of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which calls for regular testing in grades 3 to 8 and imposes penalties on schools that fail to improve test scores of students in all racial and demographic groups. Lawmakers hope their 77-page study will spur Congress and the Bush administration to consider fundamental changes to the law, which was signed by Bush in January 2002.

Since the sweeping law went into effect, state educators have been forced to focus almost exclusively on meeting federal testing mandates, undermining state education programs that were proving to work before passage of the act and stifling new state innovations, said Republican New York state Sen. Steve Saland, who co-chaired the NCSL task force in charge of the report.

"We believe the federal government's role has become excessively intrusive in the day-to-day operations of public education," Saland said. "States that were once pioneers are now captives of a one-size-fits-all educational accountability system."

Shortly after the report was released Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education issued a retort of the group's recommendations.

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Ray Simon said in a statement that easing NCLB's tough accountability standards could be interpreted as wanting to reverse progress made under the law.

"Children must be challenged to reach their full potential, not told to settle for someone else's lowered expectations," Simon said. "No Child Left Behind is bringing new hope and new opportunity to families throughout America, and we will not reverse course."

Although it is too early to measure the full impact of NCLB, federal officials said, about half of states are showing improvements. Out of 24 states with three years of data, overall achievement has improved in 23 and the achievement gap for African-American students narrowed in at least 16 states, according to the Department of Education.

The NCSL report also outlined a potential legal challenge against the constitutionality of the federal government mandating education standards to states, a federalism issue that has riled lawmakers in many states.

Last year, more than 30 states considered legislation criticizing NCLB and urging Congress to fully fund the mandate. Since legislative sessions began last month, lawmakers in nine states (Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia, Vermont, and Utah) have introduced bills challenging aspects of the law. NCSL expects the number of states to grow.

At the forefront of a grassroots rebellion against NCLB is the largely Republican state of Utah, where the state Senate is nearing final passage of a House-passed measure that would amount to the harshest rebuke yet of one of Bush's chief domestic policy initiatives. The bill calls for Utah's own school testing regimen to take precedence over NCLB testing mandates. It is sponsored by Republican state Rep. Margaret Dayton, who last year led a nationally watched effort in which Utah threatened to opt out of NCLB.

Federal officials are scrambling to quell the insurgency, which has attracted national media attention because the rebuke comes from a state that handed President Bush his largest margin of victory in the nation in the 2004 presidential election.

Tim Bridgewater, Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman's deputy for public education, said federal officials have been negotiating concessions with Utah in major areas of the law, such as "highly qualified" teacher standards and ways the state measures testing progress.

Officials with the U.S. Education Department have declined to comment on negotiations with Utah.

Most of the recommended changes in the NCSL report would require congressional action, something federal lawmakers have been reluctant to broach.

However, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former governor and U.S. secretary of education under the first President Bush, plans to hold hearings on the effectiveness of NCLB this year even though the act is not up for reauthorization until 2007.

"We want to listen carefully to teachers and principals, school board members and parents to determine how well No Child Left Behind is working," Alexander said in a statement earlier this month when he was appointed chairman of the Senate Education and Early Childhood Subcommittee.

Alexander has promised to consider recommendations outlined in the NCSL report, as well as other proposals from organizations representing state and local policy-makers, said the senator's press secretary, Alexia Poe. The senator also has said that Congress must review how NCLB is working in grades 3 to 8 before considering recent proposals by President Bush to extend NCLB testing mandates to high school.

While the state legislators' report praised the federal law's core goal of dramatically narrowing the achievement gap between students of different skin color, ethnicity, immigrant status and wealth, it said a 100 percent proficiency goal is not statistically achievable, especially for non-English speakers and students with disabilities.

Under the law, the number of students who pass standardized reading and math tests must increase annually, and all students must pass the tests by 2014. Schools are penalized if they miss the testing targets for two consecutive years. Penalties range from allowing students to transfer to higher-scoring schools to providing extra tutoring to facing state takeover.

The number of schools nationwide that failed to meet testing targets for two or more years doubled last year, according to a recent report. The NSCL task force recommends more flexibility in how states measure "adequate yearly progress" to reduce the number of failing schools.

The report also asks the federal government to resolve conflicts between NCLB and a previous law designed to help students with disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). NCLB requires students with disabilities to be tested by grade level, while IDEA mandates that students be taught according to ability.

"Ignoring the contradictions between IDEA and No Child Left Behind is one of the act's worst weaknesses," said Utah state Rep. Kory Holdaway (R), a special education teacher and co-chairman of the NCSL task force.

The co-chairmen of the legislative task force said their report represents a consensus and reflects views of the vast majority of state policy-makers.

However, some state education officials staunchly defend the federal law. Among the defenders of NCLB's rigid accountability requirements is Colorado Commissioner of Education William Moloney, a long-time advocate of standards-based education reform.

The core aim of NCLB is uplifting the nation's neediest and most vulnerable students, Moloney said in a phone interview. The law's strict accountability measures were designed to prevent states from retreating from that goal, he said.

"Desegregation was an unfunded mandate, but we did that because it was right. Taking our handicapped children out of the closet and sending them to school was an unfunded mandate, but it was the right thing to do. And that's why we're doing (NCLB)," Moloney said. Moloney and other Colorado officials were among the first state delegations invited to the White House to tout NCLB after it was signed into law.

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