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So Democrats are Restless. Don't Start Cheering

Ohanian Note: Don't get too elated. The Democrats have shown us before that political expediency isn't a stand-in for moral commitment and courage. The real problems with No Child Left Behind aren't money. We can't look to politicians for solutions.

Want a solution? Organize your block. Announce "Hell, no! We aren't going to take this any more!" Invite another block to join you.

Teachers could end test prep tomorrow.

WASHINGTON As he prepares to run for reelection, President Bush is renewing his claim on education as one of his signature issues. But this time around the issue could turn on him, because the public education landscape has changed significantly since his first run for the White House in 2000.

Two years ago, Bush delivered on a campaign promise and neutralized a popular political issue for Democrats by pushing through Congress an education reform bill that won overwhelming bipartisan support.

But the bipartisan goodwill engendered by the bill's enactment didn't last long. It was battered by a state and local fiscal crisis that forced school districts throughout the country, including in California, to slash spending and kill programs.

Now many Democrats, including those who had worked closely with Bush on the No Child Left Behind Act, are determined to pin on Bush every ill that afflicts public education.

A preview of partisan rancor erupted Tuesday as Bush spoke at a Rose Garden ceremony to highlight a milestone in the nationwide drive to improve student achievement through mandatory testing.

"The era of low expectations and low standards is ending; a time of great hopes and proven results is arriving," Bush declared, as he announced that the Education Department had approved the last of the accountability plans submitted by the states as required by the new education law.

In response to the president's Rose Garden remarks, congressional Democrats unleashed a torrent of criticism, accusing Bush of reneging on his commitment to education by seeking insufficient funds to carry out the reforms a charge that the White House rejected. Democrats also blamed Bush tax cuts for contributing to the shortfalls in state and local spending for public education.

"States and local districts are laying off teachers, increasing class sizes and firing school counselors because the economy is a wreck and because the federal government is failing to provide adequate funding for their efforts," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who worked closely with Bush to secure passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"It is the president who has broken faith with the schools and parents of this country by failing to fulfill his financial commitment to back up his accountability demands," Miller said.

School finance experts in California echoed those sentiments. They said the Bush administration had failed to adequately fund its portion of education spending, forcing the cash-strapped state to make up the difference.

California's slumping economy has contributed to the financial strain. Facing more than $2 billion in cuts next year, California's public schools are planning to lay off thousands of teachers, raise class sizes, defer maintenance and kill music and art programs.

"The No Child Left Behind program certainly imposes some very ambitious timelines on the states, and yet the feds have never even honored their initial commitment to pay their share of special education and that shortfall alone is a funding problem," said Bob Blattner, vice president of School Services of California, a private company that gives financial advice to most of the state's 1,000 school districts. "It's so frustrating."

That has become the basis for a partisan attack on Bush.

"The Democrats are making it tougher for him, and their opposition will be fiercer every time he talks about education," said Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington-based political analyst. "But for a Republican, he has built up a good reputation among average voters and has this image of being pro-education and has an agenda and cares about education."

At the heart of the controversy is the No Child Left Behind Act, which Bush signed in January 2002. Considered the most sweeping change in federal education policy in a generation, the bill granted states and local school districts more leeway in spending federal dollars. In return, the law required them to annually test reading and math skills in third through eighth grades and to intervene in schools that persistently failed to improve.

Under the law, 100% of students in every state must be proficient in reading and math within 12 years. States submitted plans earlier this year for reaching the goal.

On Tuesday, the Bush administration approved a final batch of the state accountability plans, including California's.

The California blueprint requires schools to increase the percentage of students deemed proficient in the two subjects each year until schools meet the 100% goal by 2013-14 with the greatest growth coming during the final six years.

In Bush's comments Tuesday, he specifically praised Linda Reksten, principal of Walt Disney Elementary School in Burbank, who joined the president in the Rose Garden.

Four years ago, Bush said, Disney was on a list of underperforming schools. But through "rigorous testing," teachers "learned how to use test results to tailor their lesson plans and to make sure every child excelled," he said. Last year, he noted, Disney's test scores increased 18 percentage points in reading comprehension and 27 percentage points in math from the scores of four years before.

"She has shown what works in education," Bush said. "She is the model of education reform."

Education experts in California and elsewhere doubt whether all students including those with learning disabilities and others still learning English will meet the ambitious targets. Recent projections by the state Education Department showed that all of California's 8,000 schools will fail to meet their annual improvement targets at some point over the next 12 years.

"It's nice to have really aggressive goals. In terms of the practicality it doesn't appear to be reachable," said Bill Padia, director of the policy and evaluation division at the state Education Department.

Democrats in Washington are also criticizing the measure on the grounds that such requirements amounted to "unfunded mandates."

Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Bush's 2004 budget fell "at least $9 billion short of the funding authorized by the No Child Left Behind Act."

"The administration has failed to match its rhetoric with resources on education," Spratt said.

Bush and other administration officials rejected such characterizations, arguing instead that federal spending for kindergarten through grade 12 has increased substantially since Bush took office.

As the president put it in the Rose Garden on Tuesday: "The federal government is investing more money in elementary and secondary education than at any other time in American history. The budget for next year boosts education funding to $53.1 billion and an increase of nearly $11 billion since I took office. Funding for Title I, a program that helps our most disadvantaged students, has increased 33%, to $11.6 billion. And since I took office, we've tripled the amount we're spending on effective reading programs, to more than $1 billion."

Such increases demonstrate that "this president is committed to funding for education," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.

Those numbers notwithstanding, Miller said, the president has "low-balled" education every year and now is claiming credit for spending increases that he opposed and were enacted over his opposition.

The partisan wrangling over education funding misses the point, at least when it comes to the No Child Left Behind Act, said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a public policy center in Washington.

"Frankly, the funding of this act never was a part of the act in a formal sense," he said. Rather, the bill was designed primarily to create a structure to hold public schools responsible, according to Loveless, a former sixth-grade teacher in Sacramento.

"The No Child Left Behind Act is not a fiscal solution, and it never was intended to be one," he said.

— Edwin Chen
Bush's Education Issue Turns Volatile
Los Angeles Times
June 11, 2003


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