Education Law Faces 2004 Challenges, Speakers Say

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While states and school districts are making strides toward meeting the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, the presidential election season threatens to slow progress over the next year, several attendees at a forum last week on the federal education law suggested.

Panelists at the Dec. 3 event sponsored by the Business Roundtable generally saw commitment among state officials and support from the public for the changes required by the law.

Most states are making good-faith efforts to identify poor-performing schools, encourage teachers to seek new training, and devise accurate assessments of student progress, said the panelists, who included federal lawmakers and observers from both political parties ("In ESEA Wake, School Data Flowing Forth," this issue.)

"In terms of implementation, I'd probably give it a C, recognizing that you've got A's and you've got F's out there, and the standard deviation is just huge," said Lisa Graham Keegan, the chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council, a Washington-based organization of state school leaders.

Nonetheless, among "people from all over the political spectrum," Ms. Keegan said, "you would be hard-pressed to find people who say this is not the right thing to do."

Ms. Keegan formerly served as an elected, Republican state schools superintendent in Arizona.

Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and one of the architects of the law, said he has seen progress in implementing it.

But there is "confusion that exists in virtually every state about what the real facts of the law are," he said. Some of that confusion, he argued, was propagated by critics who doubted the law's merits from the beginning.

Too many state education agencies, he said, act like a "fiefdom ... that has an opportunity to do whatever it is they've always wanted to do, and blame someone else. And so they are."

The Business Roundtable, an influential Washington- based lobbying group made up of chief executives of most of the nation's largest corporations, had also invited Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking minority member on the Senate education committee, but he did not attend.

Many Congressional Democrats voted for the No Child Left Behind law but have lately charged that the administration has failed to provide enough money to implement it.

Efforts to implement the law could be undermined by presidential politics, some participants in the forum suggested.

If school officials believed a new, Democratic administration elected in 2004 was planning to dismantle the law—a step that at least one Democratic candidate, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, has vowed to take if elected—it could hinder ongoing efforts to enforce it, some panelists said.

Andrew Rotherham, a former domestic-policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, said he was discouraged by some Democrats' attempts to discredit the law.

No Going Back

In their rhetoric opposing the federal education law, some candidates "sound a little like Orval Faubus to me," he said, referring to to the 1950s-era Arkansas governor known for his resistance to school desegregation.

Mr. Rotherham credited some of the Democratic candidates—Wesley Clark, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman in particular—for coming up with proposals to improve No Child Left Behind.

"We can't go back," Mr. Rotherham said. "We have to be a party of reform."

Rep. Boehner said Democratic candidates' recent complaints about the Bush Administration not adequately funding the law were rooted politics, not policy.

"We all know we're on the eve of a presidential election," Rep. Boehner said. "When we talk about money, that's always great fodder for the political conversation that goes on."

Vol. 23, Issue 15, Pages 22, 25

Published in Print: December 10, 2003, as Education Law Faces 2004 Challenges, Speakers Say
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