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Briefing and Opinion
April 15, 2005

Closing the Gap
Ray Simon and Celeste Ford

Assistant Secretary of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ray Simon, speaks with Celeste Ford about No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration's federal education program.

Q: Three years into this law, what's the most significant change that you've seen?

A: The biggest change is a real belief in kids that they can learn and the students stepping forward and actually doing that. When something is tested and measured and is then turned back to improve teaching, we see results. There are better results coming out of our classrooms in terms of child reading better, writing better, doing math better.

Q: How can a federal law create those changes?

It focuses the nation on a problem that we have, an achievement gap of our students that reverberates throughout our economy and throughout our whole lifestyle. Education is our nation's greatest hope for the future. By holding all children to high standards and measuring whether or not they meet standards, we are coming a long way toward resolving that problem that has been pernicious for decades.

Q: No one disputes your goals are lofty. It is the way you go about getting states to meet those goals that has been the subject of dispute. Is this federal intervention?

A: It's a partnership. It's a contract. In return for federal money, you agree to meet certain requirements from the federal government. Requirements that we believe are good for kids. It says, first of all, teach your students to high standards. Whatever standards you set in your state. It's not a national standard.

Q: You want the states to be accountable for all of this federal money they're getting?

A: We're also framing it in terms of just what is right as a nation for an educated workforce, for an educated electorate. Accountability is an important component to good teaching and learning. It focuses on what is important. It says to states, if you want to enter this contract with the federal government, if you want federal money, which every state really depends on, then there are certain requirements we expect you to meet.

Q: Education has always been a local and state domain. Could it be that the federal government is attempting to go too far with No Child Left Behind?

A: No, I don't think so. The federal government only contributes on the average eight percent to the support of schools around this country. The rest comes from state and local sources. That is the way the Constitution envisioned it, to be a state issue. But going back to 1965, there has been a federal interest in education, a federal interest in our population being educated, particularly for our most needy children.

Q: Perhaps the greatest criticism of No Child Left Behind is that it sets up all of these new standards but doesn't provide the states with the means of meeting those goals. Can something be done about that?

A: We have given them resources. There have been four independent studies that have talked about the fact that the federal government has adequately funded No Child Left Behind. And it's working. It's causing states to focus their own resources and their own reforms in a way that enhances state efforts.

Q: At least a dozen states are looking at legislation that would give the states priority over the federal law. Why do you think this is?

A: It goes back to the emotional component of No Child Left Behind. This is a very sweeping piece of legislation, monumental in terms of education. With any law that broad, there're going to be growing pains. A thought that, now here comes the federal government to try to tell me what we know better to do. This law doesn't say, "We know what to do better than you do." This law says, "We know things that work. We want you to take your system and you make it better by concentrating on what works."

Q: Is there room for compromise with No Child Left Behind? The type of compromise these states are pushing for?

A: Up to this point, Congress and the president have both been very insistent that the law not be changed. Several attempts to actually amend the law have failed. That's because Congress and the president saw what happened in the last re-authorization of the elementary and secondary education act in 1994.

I think it's much too soon to talk about changing the law simply because we don't want to get back to the old days of where the law was changed to meet everyone's desire to get out of accountability and to get out of what the federal government thought was important for kids to know and be able to do.

Q: In what fashion does the federal government plan to be more flexible?

A: We've issued flexibility in terms of students whose first language is not English. We've announced flexibility for teachers in remote areas of our country. There have been flexibilities regarding how to calculate participation rates.

Q: Are states like Utah going to be punished with sanctions or withholding of federal funds for fighting this law?

A: Not for fighting the law. There's no sanction for fighting the law or requiring consideration. The sanctions come in when a state actually violates a component of the law. There have been a number of fines issued to states or withholding of administrative funds to a few states that have failed to actually comply with the law. Utah hasn't failed to comply with the law.

Utah to Feds: Hands Off Our Ed >