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Published in Print: March 3, 2004, as Campaign Notebook

Campaign Notebook

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First Lady's Trips Reveal Her Grasp of 'No Child' Law

First lady Laura Bush blended attendance last month at several fund-raisers for her husband's re-election bid with visits to schools in a three-day swing through California, Arkansas, and Nevada. And she came armed with an unusually detailed arsenal of federal policy data to tackle questions from feisty reporters.

Election 2004

Mrs. Bush, a former teacher and school librarian, repeatedly defended the No Child Left Behind Act while talking to the press at the school events.

"I think it's working well," she said Feb. 19 at the Advanced Technologies Academy, a magnet high school in Las Vegas. But she acknowledged that "there are some states that are not happy with it."

Mrs. Bush disputed assertions that the federal government hasn't provided enough money to help states and districts meet the law's demands. She argued that President Bush has been, and will continue to be, generous in funding education.

"There will be more money," she said. "And I actually have some statistics here for Nevada." She proceeded to estimate how much more Title I aid the state would see—$72 million—under Mr. Bush's fiscal 2005 budget request. Overall, the president has called for a $1 billion increase, to $13.3 billion, for Title I, the centerpiece federal program in precollegiate education. Among its other provisions, the No Child Left Behind law reauthorized Title I.

Mrs. Bush also reiterated a sort of "inside baseball" point made recently by Department of Education officials that some states have not drawn down all the federal aid appropriated to them in recent years.

"And then, let's see, there actually is—and this is another issue that has to do with states' saying there's not enough money in it—there is still about $6 billion in the No Child Left Behind Act that has not been drawn down by states," she said.

State officials have stressed that spending some of their aid from previous fiscal years bit by bit is perfectly legal, and that they will eventually spend it all. ("Debate Flares Regarding Aid Given to States," Jan. 21, 2004.)

Despite the loud complaints recently from state officials about needing more federal aid, Mrs. Bush encouraged them to do their best to raise teacher salaries with their own money.

"I understand that a lot of states have budget problems," she said on Feb. 17 at Bentonville High School in Arkansas. "But I also know how crucial really good teachers are. ... And so I want to urge state legislatures, as they make the really tough decisions that they have to make, to remember the teachers and to try to appropriate the monies so that students, schoolwork, and teachers' careers aren't hurt by budget cuts."

David Shreve, an education lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, argues, however, that federal mandates with what he deems insufficient funding aren't making it any easier for states.

"I'm sure that most legislators in this country would like to take steps to make sure they're taking care of their teachers and students," he said. "But the reality is that there is continued cost-shifting from the federal level to the state and local level."

The first lady is expected to make more school visits this year.

Special Delivery

A book released last week features a collection of letters from more than 40 teachers, other educators, politicians, and researchers demanding that the next president improve public education. The letters from 46 writers address such topics as attracting and keeping good teachers, increasing local control over school funding, increasing students' civic education and participation, and ensuring that innovative approaches to teaching and learning remain in curricula.

"The response to concerns about better-educated citizens has been to drive creativity and experimentation out of our schools by increasing federal requirements for standardized testing," wrote Carl Glickman, the editor of the book, Letters to the Next President: What We Can Do About the Real Crises in Public Education. It is published by Teachers College Press.

During a Feb. 24 panel discussion in Washington, contributors to the book charged that the No Child Left Behind Act unfairly penalizes schools with large populations of students who are at risk for academic failure.

The nation needs to "create accountability systems that make sense," and credit schools with the progress that each child makes, instead of applying the same benchmark for every student, said Linda Darling- Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University and a contributor to the book.

The book was released during the presidential-campaign season to draw more attention to the problems the writers raise, Mr. Glickman said.

Advocates for education reform "need to be in the middle of the debate," said Jeff Blodgett, the executive director of Wellstone Action, a nonprofit advocacy group named after Paul Wellstone, the Democratic U.S. senator from Minnesota who was killed in a plane crash in 2002. "This is an issue for us to discuss now."

—Erik W. Robelen & Michelle Galley

Vol. 23, Issue 25, Page 22

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