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April 15, 2005



PAUL GIGOT: In Utah and Washington this week, state and federal officials failed to head off a showdown over who's in charge of the schools. Utah is leading a rebellion by at least 30 states against No Child Left Behind, the federal program which is the centerpiece of President Bush's education policy. The program is aimed at holding state school systems more accountable for the progress of their students through standards, testing, and methods of measuring progress which many states oppose. The states claim it's their job, not the federal government's, to determine goals and standards, and how to measure student progress. We have a report from Utah by correspondent Celeste Ford.

PRESIDENT BUSH: I'm sure there's somebody out there saying I don't like to take tests. Tough. We want to know. We need to know. We need to know whether or not people are learning. And if they are, there'll be hallelujahs all over the place.

CELESTE FORD: No Child Left Behind went into effect three years ago, and now the President's education program is facing its greatest challenge yet.

MARGARET DAYTON: No Child Left Behind says that the school should be accountable to the federal government. I think they should be accountable to the parents and to the communities where they are.

CELESTE FORD: To date, more than 30 states have raised objections to the law, but nothing compares to the developments seen during the past 10 days. It started in Utah, the state that delivered the president's largest majority during the last election, is now leading the rebellion.

[UTAH LEGISTLATURE:] We're going to spend our money how we see fit.

CELESTE FORD: With a nearly unanimous vote, Utah lawmakers called for a special session to consider overriding the federal law. Next, Connecticut became the first state to announce plans for a lawsuit against the government. Then, the new Secretary of Education came out with a major policy change.

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Today we announce raising achievement, a new path of No Child Left Behind. It will show us a way forward given what we've learned in the past three years.

CELESTE FORD: The government's new policy promises greater flexibility. For example, alternative testing for students with special needs. But only for states that raise achievement and follow the principles of No Child Left Behind. Critics say that is not enough. They claim the federal government is making an unprecedented attempt to influence what schools teach and is imposing rigid testing standards that do not take into account the difficulties of teaching disabled and minority students

CELESTE FORD: How long have you been speaking English:

CHILD: Three years, four.

CELESTE FORD: Does that make it any harder to take the test?

CHILD: Kind of.

CELESTE FORD: Is it a lot of work preparing for the test?


MARGARET DAYTON: The message that we want them to get is that Utah knows best what works for Utah's children.

CELESTE FORD: Representative Margaret Dayton is an author of the Utah legislation and an outspoken opponent of No Child Left Behind.

MARGARET DAYTON: It's important to remember that the principle here is state sovereignty and federalism.

DAYTON: Any money the federal government gives us is money that they have taxed away from our state, and they are now returning to us with strings.

CELESTE FORD: In Utah, the schools receive about 115 million dollars per year in federal aid. Lawmakers and parents hope that Utah's rebellion won't lead to reprisals in the form of a cut in federal funds.

JEFF SANDBERG: We have to find a compromise. We cannot succeed, we cannot survive without the federal funding

CELESTE FORD: At Jeff Sandberg's daughter's school nearly all the children come from low-income, minority families -- precisely the students who are the focus of No Child Left Behind. For example, the federal law stresses the achievement gap between these students and white students, and holds the school accountable for reducing that gap. If the school fails, it could be penalized. Despite the pressure, this Utah principal says overall, No Child Left Behind is a good thing.

PRINCIPAL SHAWNA WILDE: I think the idea of No Child Left Behind, the fact that we are now looking at those kids that maybe years ago we said simply couldn't learn, and now we're looking at them more closely and we're saying, we have to find a way to teach these kids.

CELESTE FORD: But in Utah, lawmakers prefer their law, which emphasizes the gains made by individual students instead of focusing on how many students and ethnic groups meet the standard. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says the administration will not compromise on annual testing, or the reporting of test results by ethnic group, a breakdown that can show a state's performance better than the average of all students:

CELESTE FORD: Both Utah and Connecticut say the administration is violating its own law. No Child Left Behind says the federal government cannot mandate or control a state's education policies, or force a state to incur costs not paid for under the law. It's an untested argument, but Utah expects to win

STATE SENATE PRESIDENT JOHN VALENTINE: One of the things that is unique to the West is the West doesn't like to back down. It may be a point where we have to say, it's too costly. We're going to have to just educate our children without federal help. We're not to that point yet.

CELESTE FORD: Utah lawmakers plan to meet April 19th for a special session on their legislation. It is expected to pass, which could force the federal government to decide whether it should punish Utah for its rebellion.


PAUL GIGOT: Joining us now to talk about all this is Kim Strassel, a senior editorial page writer. Jason, what do you make about this revolt of the states?

JASON RILEY: Well, in Connecticut they're talking about money, and whether there is enough federal funding for the No Child Left Behind Act. It's sort of a separate issue. According to about four studies, there is enough funding. But that aside, you should keep in mind the person who's bringing the lawsuit, the Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is a very partisan Democrat who wants to be governor and needs the support of the Teacher's Unions as most Democrats do. And the Teachers Unions, of course, hate the No Child Left Behind Act. So you have to take that into consideration.

Utah's got a different situation. But it is more emblematic of the overall issue regarding the No Child Left Behind Act. And that is that these states are scared to death of the transparency and the accountability provisions of the bill. For years, they have been putting out average scores on progress that sort of sweep under the rug the fact that this achievement gap is occurring.

PAUL GIGOT: Average scores for all students?

JASON RILEY: For all students. And so the high achievers are bringing up the test scores, and they can hide the fact that minorities or special education kids are not progressing as well. Under No Child Left Behind they will not be able to do that any more, or they are not allowed to do that any more. And this is what scares them to death, because the No Child Left Behind Act forces them to disaggregate the data. They have to divvy it up. They have to tell you how are the Black kids progressing, how are the Hispanic kids progressing, how are the Special Education kids progressing. And then, it's obvious that we're not living in Lake Woebegone here and all the children are not above average. And that's what the fight is about. That's what these states are resisting.

PAUL GIGOT: Kim, how do you see it?

KIM STRASSEL: Well yeah, one way to look at this is, this huge uproar from the states -- it's working. No one ever thought it was going to be easy. That's why it was instituted in the first place, because the states have done such an abysmal job of educating their children. And when you look at the stuff that they are most unhappy with -- and what they did for awhile too is, they tried to cheat. They tried to get away with things.

PAUL GIGOT: States did?

KIM STRASSEL: The states did. I mean, Texas is a great example. There are provisions in the law that say that you can exempt about one percent of your kids from the testing requirements. Somehow Texas has managed to exempt half a million of its students, which is close to like nine percent of its child population. But now that some of them are getting called out on the carpet on this, and the screws are being tightened, their kind of main reaction is to be, well, we don't want to be part of this any more and how dare the federal government tell us what we've got to do.

PAUL GIGOT: What about this point about an unfunded mandate, however? There have been a lot of complaints that there's not enough spending in the original act and that promise hasn't been kept. Is that a legitimate argument?

KIM STRASSEL: Well, let's look at what unfunded mandate means. It means when the federal government tells you that you have to do something and that you don't get money unless you do -- I mean, and then they don't give you any money to do it.

PAUL GIGOT: That's right.

KIM STRASSEL: Well this is an entirely different thing. No one, everyone seems to forget that you don't have to belong to No Child Left Behind. You only have to belong to it if you want the seven percent or so of total spending dollars that comes from the federal government. So if you don't want to be part of it -- and the government is basically saying, listen, if you want this money you've got to be held to some standards. That's not an unfunded mandate.

DAN HENNINGER: Let's put on the table the United States spends 450 billion dollars annually on education. And school systems like New York spend 12 to 14 thousand dollars per student. So

PAUL GIGOT: The federal government's about seven percent of that.

DAN HENNINGER: Seven to 10 percent, that's right. And we should also make clear that this act is mainly directed at urban and inner city schools. And this goes all the way back to the 1965 act that LBJ passed, the proudest thing he said he ever did, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was to raise the performance of inner city kids. This act has been reauthorized several times since then. This accountability movement started in the 1980s. In 1994 the Clinton administration passed a law that had accountability standards very much like the ones that George Bush enacted. The problem was, they were never enforced. And that's the issue. Will you enforce these standards?

PAUL GIGOT: But what about a state like Utah, Jason, which has -- its schools actually perform better than most in the country and they've said, we have a lot of immigrant children who are here and they may be using English as a second language. Give us a little flexibility and running room.

JASON RILEY: Well, two points. According to Utah's methods of measuring progress, they're doing well. But again, once you force them to disaggregate their data you see these achievement gaps that are not closing. No Child Left Behind shed some light on that, and that's a good thing. In terms of kids whose English is a second language or special needs kids, there are flexibility provisions in the Act. That's sort of a red herring. Could there be more? Sure. I think those could be handled administratively.

But just one other point on the spending: we actually spent a half trillion dollars last year on K through 12 education in this country. We spent 375 billion on military defense. I mean, the funding issue is a huge one, and it's worth emphasizing. Since 2001, education spending has increased by two-thirds in this country, the largest increase in history. There is more than enough money to pay for No Child Left Behind in terms of spending, no matter what Connecticut says.

PAUL GIGOT: Political -- school choice was dropped from the No Child Left Behind ability to let parents choose their schools if the schools are failing early on. That's not likely to return, Dan. The President has said, however, that the standards movement, the accountability rule, that he wants to extend to high schools, as opposed to just elementary schools. Is that something that he's likely to get?

DAN HENNINGER: I don't think he's likely to get it unless there's some proven success at the lower primary and the secondary level, junior high schools. We should make clear one point about the data that this Act outputs. The data is not so that the school systems and the bureaucracies can react and fight over it. That's intended for the parents, right?

PAUL GIGOT: That's right.

DAN HENNINGER: Parents, in a lot of these schools, have no idea whether their school, much less their own children, are doing well or poorly compared to anything else. Nobody tells parents anything in these schools. You just send the kid into the school. This stuff is supposed to show whether your school is doing as well as the ones on the other side of town, or in the next state.

PAUL GIGOT: And that's probably why this law is fighting, and is unpopular. All right, thank you all very much. Next subject.