New Federal School Plan Flawed, Report Says
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
The Bush administration must give states more flexibility in implementing No Child Left Behind, tone down its rhetoric about that education law, and be ready to make changes if the sweeping education initiative is to succeed, a new report released Friday (1/3) says.
Nearly one year after Bush signed the federal school bill called No Child Left Behind into law, funding shortfalls and administration delays in specifying how to comply threaten to derail the goal of improving every student and school's academic performance, the Center on Education Policy, an education advocacy group based in Washington, found.
The center's new report, From the Capital to the Classroom, reiterates a concern among educators that the No Child Left Behind rules may doom many schools to failure.
"The biggest fear states have is that the law will lead to a large number of schools being identified for improvement," according to Jack Jennings, the center's director. "The long-delayed regulations on complex issues about how to measure schools' progress from year to year have increased this anxiety," Jennings said.
The report says states have made progress in planning to implement the new federal law, but still have a long way to go. It says these are among things states have left undone:
- Identifying firms that can provide tutoring and other services and
- Helping local school districts assess the qualifications of tutors, teacher aides and other "paraprofessionals."
The center says that the Bush administration's hard-line approach isn't helping. President Bush and the U.S. Department of Education have made clear that the federal government won't deviate from the new law's requirements.
While they generally support the goals of the law, which raises standards for students and teachers, states say they will need more time, money and help from the federal government to reach them.
The administration should be willing to make 2003 a test run year and redraw the law if states' fears are realized and 50 to 80 percent of all schools are deemed "failing" by year's end, Jennings said.
State officials identified the following six key obstacles that may jeopardize education reform efforts, the center says:
- Not enough funds. President Bush has proposed a 2.8 percent budget increase for education in fiscal year 2003, which the center says falls "well short of what will be needed for states and school districts to carry out the requirements of the new law," making it another "unfunded mandate" for states. Meanwhile, the soft economy has led governors and lawmakers to cut education budgets, leading to significant cutbacks in staff and funding.
- Not enough guidance. The U.S. Department of Education has been slow to give states regulations and guidance on No Child Left Behind. State officials told the center that they are not getting answers to specific questions or the answers are delayed until political appointees clear the responses.
- Not enough flexibility. States are on "a collision course" with the narrow technical requirements of No Child Left Behind, state officials told the center. Already, Maryland has been forced to change its statewide testing system to adopt new tests that meet the law's requirements for individual student results.
- Not enough time. Deadlines for making changes are extremely tight especially because the Department of Education did not issue final regulations on accountability and school improvement until late November. States have a very short timeline for drawing up accountability plans, which are due Jan. 31. States and school districts had to implement key provisions of the law, such as school choice and supplemental education services, without the benefit of final regulations.
- Not enough consistency. The law provides incentives for states to lower their standards, the center said. States with higher standards are likely to have more of their schools labeled as needing improvement than states with lower standards.
- Not enough accurate testing. The state-of-the-art in testing is not yet reliable or consistent enough for year-to-year changes in scores to always be an accurate reflection of progress, the center said.
"Delays in providing crucial information and threats of rigorous enforcement have made state leaders increasingly anxious about how to go about introducing the most sweeping changes in education in 40 years," Jennings said. "With little help in assisting states chart a new course and little money from Washington, we may see states and the federal government wage a bureaucratic battle over technical requirements rather than work together to dramatically improve public education," according to Jennings.
The center's report is based on interviews with officials from 48 states and the District of Columbia in the fall of 2002 and reviews of state documents filed with the U.S. Department of Education. The center tried, but was unable to reach education officials in Arizona and Connecticut.
The center, which was established in 1995, receives nearly all of its funding from charitable foundations such as The Atlantic Philanthropies, The George Gund Foundation, The Joyce Foundation, The Hewlett Foundation, The Gates Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and Phi Delta Kappa International.