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WASHINGTON — Two years ago, President Bush sat at a worn wooden school desk in a Hamilton, Ohio, high school and signed into law the most sweeping federal education bill in four decades.
The “No Child Left Behind Act” had passed Congress with wide bipartisan margins. Democrats joined Republicans in pushing the effort to ensure that all students — regardless of their race, language, income status, or disability — receive a quality education in America's public schools.
Regarded as Mr. Bush's signature domestic success, the law was hailed by many as a landmark effort to close the “achievement gap” that has kept many Hispanic and African-American students on the bottom rungs of the U.S. educational ladder, behind their white and Asian counterparts.
Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) was among the 87 senators to vote for the law, which requires annual math and reading tests from 3rd through 8th grades and in high schools creates higher standards for teachers. It also penalizes schools that consistently fail to improve. The law requires that, by 2013-2014 school year, all students must pass reading and math tests to graduate from high school.
Since the law was passed, Mr. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic candidate for president against Mr. Bush, has had major second thoughts. While voicing support for the law's goals, Mr. Kerry argues that efforts to implement it have stumbled because Mr. Bush has failed to provide adequate federal funds and policy flexibility to the states.
“This president promised to give our schools the help they need — but he broke that promise and instead gave that money to the most powerful and wealthy people in our country,” Mr. Kerry said in a recent speech.
Mr. Kerry is not alone in having a change of heart about the “No Child Left Behind” law. He's part of a growing bipartisan chorus of federal lawmakers, state legislators, school boards, school administrators, and parents who support the goals of the law but are critical of the Bush administration's execution of it.
In the past two months, legislatures in 20 budget-strapped states, many dominated by Republicans, have passed resolutions highlighting major problems with the law and urging the Bush administration to make changes and back them with more money.
“This law is a tiger,” said Virginia Delegate James Dillard, a Republican who co-chairs the education committee for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Unless they make some changes, it's really going to eat them alive.”
Bruce Hunter, a long-time policy official with the American Association of School Administrators, added, “It's kind of like watching a slow-motion revolution. It's been amazing to me. I've never seen state legislators respond to a federal statute this way.”
Meanwhile, school districts around the nation are focused on trying to meet the new law's requirements. In Toledo, for example, former principal Cindy Kline was tapped last year to take on a new job as Toledo Public Schools' “No Child Left Behind facilitator.'' Ms. Kline's job is to know the provisions of the law and then to make sure that TPS fulfills those provisions.
“I think that the larger an urban school district is, the more they have to think about someone to do this,'' Ms. Kline said. “Otherwise, they might not be in compliance. We're taking the pro-active approach. We don't want to be in the limelight because we didn't do something we should.''
Of Toledo's 46 elementary schools, 16 have been put on the “school improvement list'' over the past four years because their students didn't made adequate progress as defined by the federal law and Ohio's version of the law, Ms. Kline said. Nearly 3,000 students in those schools are eligible for tutoring and other “supplemental educational services'' to increase their test scores, and about 500 have signed up so far, Ms. Kline added.
“What we have done in these buildings (the schools on the ‘school improvement list') is to have internal and external coaches. We are using research-based strategies that are driven by data,'' Ms. Kline said, adding that a number of students have shown great improvement as a result of the extra help.
In fact, Toledo's program for connecting students to “supplemental education services'' recently was singled out by WestEd, a California-based education research non-profit, as one of five programs nationwide that provide “promising practices” for other school districts, Ms. Kline said.
Overall, Ms. Kline said TPS officials see the new law as “something that is helpful as we strive to help kids do their best.'' But there are some challenges, she added. One of the most difficult is the fact that standards for student progress are raised every two years, which means that schools meeting one student progress milestone must then regroup to figure out how to increase that progress to meet the next milestone, Ms. Kline said.
The program worked wonders for Sarah Sager, a 4th grader at Marshall Elementary School. Sarah's mother, Cari Sager, said that her daughter had long had trouble reading and, as a result, hated to read.
When Ms. Sager received a letter at the beginning of the school year stating that Sarah was entitled to tutoring services under the law, she jumped at the chance to help her daughter.
Since then, Sarah's ability to read — and her feeling about reading — “have done a complete 360,'' Ms. Sager said. “Now, she can't go to the library enough. She's reading street signs, she's reading everything she can get her hands on.''
Unlike four years ago, education is not a top issue in the presidential campaign so far, as voters and candidates focus on the economy and national security issues, such as the war in Iraq.
But polling and political experts say that education could rise in importance as an issue in a close presidential race, especially after states release their latest test scores this fall.
This year, 30 percent of all public schools were labeled “failing” as a result of their test scores, and education experts say the number could increase next fall. That could spur voter discontent and have an impact on the election, some political experts say.
Administration officials point out that federal education funds have increased by more than a third — to $24 billion— since the law was passed.
As criticism has gained traction and media attention, the Department of Education has begun to respond. After refusing even to consider any modifications to the law, federal education officials recently announced changes to provide states with more “flexibility” for three particularly thorny provisions on special education and limited-English-speaking students, and teacher quality.
The department is expected to announce another change to revamp another provision that requires 95 percent of all students, including 95 percent of those in various subgroups, such as Hispanics or special ed students, to take the annual tests. The provision has resulted in a number of schools being labeled as “failing” because fewer than 95 percent of their students took the test, even though the students who took it did well.
“Our job is to implement this complex law,” said Eugene Hickok, education undersecretary and a former Pennsylvania secretary of education. “Implementation — if you're smart — won't take place in a vacuum.”
Mr. Hickok added that he's not worried about the criticism that the administration has received .
“Frankly ... there is controversy because people are taking this law seriously,” he said.
Many state legislators and education groups, including the National Education Association — the nation's largest teacher union — say the department's changes are welcome, but don't go nearly far enough.
Others, however, are concerned about the changes, worrying that the presidential campaign's political concerns are pushing the administration to begin watering down some of the toughest provisions in the education law that directly address the achievement gap.
For example, more than 100 African-American and Latino school superintendents recently joined with other education leaders in urging Mr. Bush and Congress against “turning back the clock.”
But Michael Franc, vice president for governmental relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, said the important thing to remember is that the law has changed the political dynamic on education.
“What it is forcing more than anything else is transparency with respect to the quality of schools,” Mr. Franc said.
Contact Karen MacPherson at: kmacpherson@national press.com or 202-662-7075.