The following op-ed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was published in today's USA Today:
Three years ago, the stars aligned: The American people decided it was finally time to reform our public schools. Parents demanded accountability, taxpayers demanded value, businesses needed better-educated employees and children stuck in poor-performing schools needed change. The message was heard at the highest levels of government. And the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was born.
As any mom can tell you, a surprising amount of progress is made in the first three years of life: from learning to crawl all the way to learning a language. Like a child, this law has accomplished a lot in three short years. All 50 states now have accountability plans in place that have laid the foundation for continuous school improvement and student achievement from year to year. The groundwork is set and rapid progress is being made.
Some states, however, are experiencing growing pains. A few states in particular are testing boundaries, trying to see how far they can stray from the law without getting grounded and losing federal funds. Utah's Legislature has passed a law that may conflict with NCLB: It wants to continue to receive federal dollars while not following the law specifically leaving some children behind. But this action could put more than $75 million in federal funds at risk. And Connecticut is seeking to file a lawsuit so it can continue to receive federal dollars for annual student testing without you guessed it testing all students every year.
A must: 'Real annual progress'
I have pledged to take a common-sense approach to the implementation of No Child Left Behind, allowing flexibility where possible and necessary. But this approach is conditioned on one overriding factor: ensuring that real annual progress is made toward getting every single child to read and do math at grade level. The only way to achieve that goal is to adhere to the law's bright lines of annual testing and breakdown of data by student subgroups. Without that information, parents will not know how their children are doing, and educators won't know what to adjust to best help their students. Quite simply, what gets measured, gets done.
But some don't want to reform. For example, the National Education Association (NEA) has tossed its lawyers into the ring, suing the Department of Education under the ironic premise that No Child Left Behind is forcing school districts to spend too much on education. After lobbying for nearly two years to find at least one state willing to sue, the NEA has finally settled on a handful of school districts.
It is interesting to note that six of the nine districts in the suit successfully met their accountability targets under the law goals that are set by the state, not the federal government and the ninth district in the suit apparently received no rating whatsoever. In other words, students have already benefited and their education is improving, thanks to the law. In addition, almost every district in the lawsuit has seen its federal funds increase significantly since NCLB was passed one as high as 300%.
Despite claims to the contrary by special-interest groups that will never be satisfied with the amount spent on public education, the No Child Left Behind law is not financially burdensome. Several reputable studies, including one by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, have found that the law is funded and is not a mandate. Most of the objections to the law have focused on the testing provisions, but most states already have the testing infrastructure in place. The bipartisan passage of the law was accompanied by a significant increase in federal spending, 40% during the past three years, to cover these and other costs.
As a nation, we spend more than $530 billion for K-12 education, which is more than the gross domestic product of Russia. Of that amount, less than 1% is devoted to student assessment.
In spite of a few state politicians who insist it can't be done, teachers and students in classrooms across America say it can. This is a case of show and tell: Student achievement is up under NCLB, and the nation's stubborn achievement gap is finally starting to close. Our children and teachers are meeting the high expectations we've set.
Here we go again
It is worth noting that this has happened before some states have chosen not to take part in federal education programs. For example, New Mexico opted out of the Education of the Handicapped Act (now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) for six years. As a result, the state forfeited about $23 million in federal funds for its disabled children. And five states initially chose not to participate in 1994's education reform act, called Goals 2000.
Is national school reform easy? No nobody ever said it would be. Never before have we, or any other nation, attempted to give every single child regardless of his or her background, skin color or neighborhood a quality education.
The contrary actions of a couple of states and one teachers lobby do not constitute a "grass-roots rebellion." The bottom line is that most respected, national education organizations are working with us to continue the unprecedented national progress that No Child Left Behind has begun. I will continue to partner with them and look forward to the day when all groups can put politics aside and focus on helping society's most vulnerable children receive the education that a nation such as ours is certainly capable of providing.
This op-ed is available online.
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