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Published: Saturday, 2/7/2004

NCLB misses the mark

Anyone could see trouble coming from the start. The money wasn't there. The elongated federal nose butted way too far into traditionally state and local business. And the standards were too ambitious for the circumstances.

Now, two years after President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education initiative took effect, former backer and U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy is tossing brickbats and GOP officials in several states are upset.

For some, NCLB's demands exceed federal money available to pay for them, and most states don't have it.

Others find the detailed federal intervention too intrusive and, as a result, just not Republican.

Right now 26,000 of 91,400 of the nation's schools are on probation for not meeting annual improvement numbers and face sanctions they can ill afford.

The shortcomings Mr. Bush and others in his administration impute to the failed schools have little to do with progress they may have made in educating students.

As a cynical school official said, what these schools failed was "the straight face test."

A Republican state legislator in Utah, Rep. Margaret Dayton, citing federal intrusion into state matters, proposes taking her state out of the program.

The Virginia House of Delegates, controlled by Republicans, just voted 98-1 to try to get a congressional exemption.

Four states are doing studies on the cost of compliance. One in Ohio found that to fully implement NCLB here would require $1.5 billion. It now gets $44 million in federal education aid, a sum disputed as too small by state Rep. John Boehner (R., West Chester), who helped draft NCLB.

One can't imagine Mr. Bush envisioning these problems when he signed into law the commendable goal of assuring pupil accomplishment and teacher accountability.

The administration, dismissing complainers as incompetents, disingenuously bills NCLB as the "first comprehensive attempt to make sure that every child everywhere counts."

It could be, but it isn't. In the face of the national debt, an expensive war, and an economy that is not creating many well-paid jobs, the law's promise has become hot-air rhetoric and lousy campaign fodder.

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