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Published: Saturday, 3/12/2005

A failing grade

'No Child Left Behind' gets bad marks from a bipartisan group of state legislators

WASHINGTON could be facing a nationwide bipartisan revolt over the President's major education initiative if the administration refuses to revisit fundamental elements of its celebrated No Child Left Behind Act. A clear sign of widespread frustration over the law was reflected in a scathing report produced by a group representing all 50 state legislatures in the country.

The National Conference on State Legislatures whose membership is split right down the partisan middle, largely reacted to what it sees as the "excessively intrusive" role of the federal government in the day-to-day operation of public school education. The observation is ironic considering that the dominant party on the national and many state levels is one that has traditionally fought against big government and for states' rights and more local control.

But after studying the increasingly aggressive role of the federal government in education and holding hearings in six cities, the National Conference called President Bush's landmark education law coercive and unconstitutional with unreachable goals. The group's report said the law is actually undermining local initiatives to improve academic standings with its rigid adherence to standardized tests, fixed bureaucratic rules and little allowance for other indicators measuring student progress.

In addition, new federal requirements for educating disabled students appear to conflict with some provisions in the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, confounding teachers and administrators in the nation's 15,000 school districts.

States want the flexibility to interpret the federal education law according to their own ability and resources without being coerced into compliance-which many claim is unconstitutional. The argument is not with the academic proficiency goals of No Child Left Behind but with the best way to achieve the most practical success within given deadlines.

Moreover, say state lawmakers and local educators, the fear of falling short of federal education rules and being punished with fiscal retribution has seriously stifled state innovation.

The report calls that problem an unintended consequence of the federal law but one that the government is seemingly indifferent to as it moves ahead to implement its education overhaul. Yet the growing friction between the Department of Education and states and school districts bodes poorly for satisfactory results.

Already several states have signalled open resistance to No Child Left Behind with legislation that challenges the federal law to various degrees.

Still, there are few signs the Bush Administration or Congress are willing to cede any flexibility to states on interpreting academic progress or permit any scaling back of the President's signature education law.

Too bad. The losers will be students left behind the learning curve in struggling school districts while those in a position to help argue over how to grade the system.

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