History and histrionics
behind NCLB

Schools face dire consequences when
they buck No Child Left Behind
requirements, so why are some
educators doing it anyway?

Education traditionally is a state responsibility. For this reason, Hawaii does not have to participate in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. But there is a consequence for nonparticipation: The state wouldn't be entitled to receive any federal education funds. The amount for Hawaii, based on the proposed 2005 federal budget, is $340.5 million.

NCLB is a reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act of 1965. ESEA was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. For the first time, the federal government became directly involved in state education by providing financial support for the education of disadvantaged children.

As with many federal funding programs, ESEA must be "reauthorized" by Congress every few years. The problem is the political process. NCLB, the name selected for the latest reauthorization, was a 670-page document when first proposed in January 2001. By the time Congress approved it in December, the final version had grown to 1,425 pages.

The reauthorization started with strong bipartisan support. But bitter infighting between Republicans and Democrats over specific provisions meant NCLB had stalled by the summer months. Then Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything. Both the U.S. Congress and the White House had more pressing business. Any pending major legislation quickly passed. On Jan. 8, 2002, surrounded by smiling Democrats and Republicans, President Bush signed NCLB into law.

School districts, administrators, teachers, their unions and supporters strongly opposed NCLB. After passage they continued the fight by going after the U.S. Department of Education, the agency responsible for implementation. It got so bad that then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization." NEA is the largest national group representing teachers. NEA demanded but never received an apology from Paige for the remark.

But why is there opposition among educators?

Acts of Congress are a collection of compromises. For NCLB, there were 2,750 divergences between the House and Senate versions. Each difference had to be negotiated during committee meetings. The final agreement contains both minor and serious flaws.

For example, annual standardized testing means some schools would be identified as failing. This is embarrassing for the schools, and it is inherently unfair to teachers who are being held accountable even for things that are beyond their control.

The Bush administration remains uncompromising, especially on the issue of accountability. Groups that want certain provisions changed decided to pin their hopes on Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic Party's presidential candidate in 2004. Kerry was tempted to debate Bush on NCLB. Democrats have always considered education as a cornerstone of their party platform. Here were the Republicans usurping that claim.

Public opinion polls indicated strong NCLB support among black and Hispanic voters. Children from these two minority groups in low-income neighborhoods suffer most when it comes to education. Kerry decided on caution. His speeches were limited to accusations that Republicans underfunded NCLB.

So how is Hawaii doing? Let's take look at the report card. The 2003-2004 NCLB passing score is 30 percent for reading and 10 percent for math. Statewide, our average was 45 percent for reading and 23 percent for math, according to information published by the Hawaii Department of Education. This means we passed. We also passed in 2001-2002 and 2002-2003.

Unfortunately, the scoring system is applied to individual schools rather than on a statewide basis. There are also other criteria in addition to reading and math proficiency. Any school that fails to make the standard is subjected to punishment, starting with a reprimand. Every additional year of continuing failure creates greater consequences. The ultimate penalty is takeover by outside forces.

Last month the state DOE identified 24 underperforming public schools that must submit to "restructuring" under state control. Control of each schools' budget, personnel decisions and class instruction will be directed by a regional superintendent, with the goal of improving the schools' performance.

But several states are rebelling against NCLB. The NEA and nine school districts in Michigan, Vermont and Texas sued the Bush administration last week, with the aim of freeing schools from complying with any part of NCLB not paid for by the federal government. The outcome of that suit could affect how the law is enforced in schools across the country.

In addition, the Utah legislature voted last week to put its educational goals ahead of the federal law despite the possible loss of $76 million, and Connecticut is planning its own lawsuit. And in 2003 Hawaii lawmakers toyed with the idea of giving up NCLB funding until Congress provides more money.

NCLB is limited to six years. ESEA will undergo another reauthorization process in 2007. The Bush administration has already announced it wants even tougher standards. Graduating high school seniors might be required to take proficiency tests before they receive diplomas.

In the meantime, unless our state is willing to give up $340.5 million in federal education subsidies, Hawaii has no choice but to abide by NCLB.

Loretta Krause is professor emerita at the University of Hawaii with more than 40 years in education and 32 years as principal of the Laboratory School. She recently founded American Institutes for Learning, an education consulting firm based in Waikiki.

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