Campaign Notebook

December 03, 2003 5 min read
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Dean Unveils K-12 Agenda As Rivals Sharpen Rhetoric

Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, long an outspoken critic of the No Child Left Behind Act, announced his plans recently for how he would seek to rewrite the law if elected president. He also unfurled several new proposals for K-12 education.

“The No Child Left Behind Act is a perfect example of government not understanding the needs of teachers, parents, and students,” Mr. Dean said in a Nov. 19 press release. Based on fund raising and recent polls, he is considered one of the top contenders among the nine Democrats seeking their party’s nomination for president in 2004.

Mr. Dean wants to “fix” the law’s accountability provisions by setting “reasonable goals for adequate yearly progress that are fair to students, teachers, schools, and states, and do not rely solely on standardized tests,” according to the press release. He calls for using “multiple measures” of learning. In addition, Mr. Dean would give states more flexibility in deciding how and when to assess student learning.

However, his plan was short on details on exactly how to rewrite the law’s accountability demands. While the law does require states to use at least one other academic indicator beyond testing—at the high school level, it must be graduation rates; at earlier levels, most use attendance rates—the accountability is largely driven by test scores.

In a recent interview with Education Week, Mr. Dean said he thought the 2001 law’s accountability demands, as written, were “aimed at punishing public schools.” (“On Trail, It’s Dean vs. No Child Left Behind Act,” Nov. 12, 2003.)

The federal law, a top domestic priority of President Bush, won overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress. Leading Democrats were intimately involved in devising the final language on accountability. Like most Democrats, Mr. Dean says he wants increased funding to accompany the law.

The Vermonter also announced several other K-12 proposals. He said he would match state and local investments in building and renovating schools with federal aid, echoing what was a top priority of President Clinton’s. He also pledged to underwrite “national service scholarships” for prospective teachers who commit to teaching in high-need fields and in high-need districts.

Other Candidates Speak

While up until now, most other Democrats seeking the presidential nomination have kept their criticism to what they view as insufficient funding for the No Child Left Behind law, two candidates who voted for the act are starting to go further.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who serves on the Senate education committee, which played a leading role in crafting the measure, said last month that he wants to “fix and fund” the act, according to the Associated Press. He talked of changing the law’s testing requirements, as well as its demand for ensuring a “highly qualified” teacher is in every public school classroom by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts now has some criticisms of the law on his Web site. He calls for changing the definition of “adequate yearly progress” to avoid what he calls a “one-size-fits-all testing plan.”

“We need high-quality assessments that reflect actual learning,” his Web site says, “and we need to consider indicators of school performance other than simply test scores.”

College Issues

Making college more affordable is becoming a popular campaign issue for the Democrats.

“My plan will open the doors of college to more Americans—and close the graduation gap that keeps too many students from a fair chance at a better life,” Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut said in announcing his plan on Nov. 3.

He would raise the maximum Pell Grant award from $4,050 to $6,150 in 2004, and to $7,760 in 2008; provide financial rewards to public colleges that significantly increase enrollment and graduation rates of low-income and minority students; and require colleges that receive federal money to make public their enrollment and graduation rates, particularly for low-income and minority students.

Ten days later, Mr. Dean announced his “College Commitment” plan to help young people pay for college or other career training. Under his plan, any 8th grader who committed to preparing for and eventually attended college would have access to $10,000 a year in aid for postsecondary education, whether a traditional college or other high-skills career training. Those students would never have to pay more than 10 percent of their annual incomes after college on student-loan repayments. And if those students worked and made loan payments for 10 years after college, any loans would automatically be deemed paid in full.

“This is a floor guarantee to everybody who is going to college,” Mr. Dean said in a Nov. 13 conference call with reporters. “After 10 years,” he added, “you’ll be done. ... That’s the key part of this.”

The Youth Vote

As fans of the TV sitcom “All in the Family” will recall, the irascible Archie Bunker hated few things as much as political activism— especially the liberal variety espoused by his son-in-law, Mike Stivic, better known as “Meathead.”

Today, the creator of that iconic 1970s show is trying to encourage the most basic form of civic involvement among high school and college students.

Producer Norman Lear, 81, has launched a voter- registration effort that aims to reach at least 1 million high school seniors before next year’s presidential election. Titled “Declare Yourself,” the campaign is targeting adults between the ages of 18 and 29.

To connect with today’s youth crowd, Mr. Lear is tapping the young, hip celebrity network. He enlisted actors Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn for a short film called “Let’s Go Voting!,” which schools can view online at When Mr. Lear announced his project on Nov. 13 at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, he was joined by the actress Drew Barrymore, 28.

“It’s important to reach young people where they live, work, and play,” said Christy Salcido, a spokeswoman for Declare Yourself.

Mr. Lear, who also produced such hit TV series such as “Maude” and “Good Times,” is well-known for his political activism. He was the co-founder of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy organization that promotes civil rights, a strong public education, and other causes. Despite his political leanings, the veteran producer isn’t using the voter drive as a chance to simply bring more Democrats into voting booths, Ms. Salcido said.

“Norman Lear’s goal is to get young people at the polls,” she said, “and he doesn’t care which way they vote.”

—Erik W. Robelen & Sean Cavanagh

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