WASHINGTON - The National Conference of State Legislatures has issued a stinging letter criticizing central aspects of President Bush's education plan as “seriously and perhaps irreparably flawed.''
The bipartisan group of more than 7,500 state legislators has sent past letters voicing concerns about the education bill, but none has been as harsh as this one. The letter lists nine objections to core provisions in the measure, which has passed the House and Senate. A group of lawmakers is trying to reconcile differences between the two versions.
The primary claim is that the federal government is usurping state authority over education, especially in the area of testing. Annual student testing in reading and math in grades three to eight is Mr. Bush's signature education proposal and is included in the House and Senate bills.
“The testing requirement at the heart of both bills is an egregious example of a top-down, one-size-fits-all federal reform,'' the letter to lawmakers says. “A federal mandate for annual testing is a senseless preemption of successful state accountability systems that do not include annual testing.''
The letter, dated Sept. 26, adds that there is “no compelling or convincing argument'' that an effective system for holding schools responsible for student performance must include annual testing in multiple subjects. It states fears that Congress will not finance adequately the development and administration of the tests, forcing states to assume substantial new costs.
The administration and key lawmakers defended the education bill as a rigorous way to ensure that all children master basic skills.
“It [the letter] is unusually out of step with the bipartisan consensus at the White House, the Department of Education, on Capitol Hill, and among most groups that are involved in education issues,'' said Lindsey Kozberg, an Education Department spokeswoman. She called annual testing “the best chance we have to make sure children are learning.''
Dave Schnittger, spokesman for Rep. John Boehner [R, Ohio], chairman of the House education committee, said: “It's one letter from one group that now, at the 11th hour, has realized these reforms are really going to happen. They're defending the indefensible and making a lonely argument for preserving a system that has failed three generations of disadvantaged students.''
The administration received support from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D, Mass.), chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “The bill is designed to direct resources to the children and the schools that need the most help and to hold schools responsible for results,'' said Mr. Kennedy's spokesman Jim Manley. He added that Mr. Kennedy is pressing for additional federal money, including a boost for special education.
Minnesota state Sen. Jane Krentz, a Democrat who chairs the national conference's education committee, said she is concerned that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will impel lawmakers anxious to display bipartisan cooperation to rush final work on the bill.
“I wouldn't want us to force something too quickly without adequate thought and deliberation and without adequate attention to the consequences,'' she said. States have economic problems as a result of the attacks, including extensive layoffs of airline employees, she added.
The attacks are “clearly going to have an impact on our states, and we're going to have budget problems, and to add another federal unfunded mandate is a concern to me as a state legislator,'' said Ms. Krentz, one of four conference members to sign the letter. The others were Republicans: Sen. Stephen Saland of New York, the national conference president, Rep. Ralph Tanner of Kansas, and Delegate James Dillard of Virginia.
The letter commends Mr. Bush and Congress for their hard work but charges that “expediency has triumphed over good policy.''
“Do we support flawed federal legislation because others have supported it?'' the letter asks. “Or do we voice our honest opinion that this ‘reform' stops us in our tracks and sends us off on a new and not necessarily successful course? We choose to do our duty by withholding our support for this legislation.''