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3 Cheers for Nebraska Commissioner's "Hell no"

NORFOLK, Neb. -- The U.S. Department of Education humiliated tiny Washington Elementary School in northeast Nebraska this year, declaring that its students had produced abysmal test scores and that it was a "failing" school.

The pronouncement did not exactly spur Nebraska officials to take emergency action. Instead, they decided to challenge the federal government, saying its assessment was plain wrong. What's more, they said, the "feds" should back off and let this state evaluate its schools as it sees fit.

Nebraska's combative stance, born of a belief in state control of public education, has thrown a wrench into the Bush administration's plans to implement a new education law. That law, approved last year, is widely regarded as one of the president's top domestic achievements.
br>The law imposes tough burdens and requires states to test students more than in the past. Schools whose test scores remain low face enormous pressure to improve. This year, the government began identifying schools that are failing and that must improve to meet new federal standards.

While most states are on the road to complying, the administration is facing stiff resistance from Nebraska and a handful of others. It's a problem that could complicate Bush's desire to campaign on education -- a top priority of Americans -- when he seeks re-election.
Even as he'll likely boast of higher student achievement, Bush might find his administration squabbling with a few states and threatening under the new law to withhold federal money if they don't fall in line -- a far-from-rosy story for the campaign trail.

The states face two key deadlines -- one at the end of next month, the other in June -- to show they plan to fully comply with the law. If not, they could lose millions of dollars in education funding. Nebraska officials acknowledge that unless the government eases some of its rules, they won't be in full compliance.

The debate puts Bush in an awkward position: Much opposition comes from his own party, which typically opposes federal involvement in education. The stiffest resistance is from Nebraska, a Republican state that backed Bush overwhelmingly in the 2000 election, and has a Republican governor and a Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, who voted against the education law.

State officials complain that the president is abandoning the conservative principle that the federal government should not meddle in state-run public education. It was Bush's party that a decade ago deemed the federal Department of Education unnecessary and called for its abolishment.

"I am surprised, confused and very frustrated with Bush," said Doug Christensen, Nebraska's education commissioner, who says he thinks the president is more interested in scoring political points than in helping schools.
Unlike in many states, many schools in Nebraska are in remote areas and have just a handful of students. Nebraskans, not federal bureaucrats, Christensen argues, understand their schools and know best how to assess them.

"The Constitution of this country says education is a state matter, that it's our job, and I cannot in good conscience stand up in front of anyone in this state and say we need to do something because the federal government says we do," he said.

White House officials, mindful that states cherish their authority over public education, insist that Bush is committed to preserving their prerogatives. But, they say, he is also deeply concerned that many students, especially disadvantaged and minority children, have long been trapped in failing schools.

"We are for local control," said Margaret Spellings, Bush's top domestic policy adviser. "But we are also for results."
She and others in the administration point out that the law does not impose a single national test, and in fact gives states wide latitude to come up with their own tests and standards. The bedrock requirements are that states compare performances among schools and track the progress of minority and disadvantaged students.

The law, known as "No Child Left Behind," passed overwhelmingly in Congress last year. But the president has long faced grumbling from conservatives concerned that Washington is getting too involved in education. Bush often tries to tiptoe around the issue.

Getting tough
At a campaign event in Shreveport, La., several weeks ago, Bush said he supported "making sure we've got local control of our schools in America."

But then he added, "Last year, we spent $847 million of federal money on Louisiana schools, and that's good. But now we're starting to ask the question: ... Are we getting our money's worth?"

Senior Bush administration officials insist that they plan to get tough with states that refuse to comply.

"If some people are wondering if we are going to hold states' feet to the fire and enforce this, unlike previous administrations, the answer is yes," said Eugene Hickok, the undersecretary of education.

Though Hickok said after speaking with Nebraska officials that he was optimistic about finding a solution, he said that if it's eventually necessary to withhold education money to states, "we probably would."

Under the new law, states must test students in reading and math in grades three through eight beginning in 2005. Each state must publish the results so the public can easily compare schools.

The data must show how disadvantaged students and minority students perform compared with others. If a failing school shows too little improvement, parents could use some of the federal money given to their school to transfer their child to another school.

Although Nebraska officials, as in other states, have given standardized achievement tests, they strenuously oppose using a single exam statewide. They have devised their own strategy for ensuring improvement: It lets school systems, with guidance from teachers, come up with ways to test knowledge of reading and math. Sometimes it involves a traditional test, occasionally an informal discussion with a student.

Officials here say the system has advantages. Teachers have greater ownership of the tests because they helped write them. And the tests are geared to assess how students have learned from their school's curriculum so teachers don't have to do what some critics have called "teaching to the test."

Equally important, they say, teachers need not wait weeks or months for test results. They can see immediately where students have failed and begin helping them improve.

That is crucial in a community like Norfolk, a city of 23,000 in northeast Nebraska, where people frequently move in search of temporary low-skill jobs. Because of the transient population, many students spend only short times in a school such as Washington Elementary.

"We're doing testing every day, but it's testing that has meaning," said Randy Nelson, the superintendent of schools in Norfolk. "I tell my principals, 'You may have a kid for one day, or one week, but make the difference in that kid's life for the whole time you have them.'"

Nelson, a Republican, voted for Bush but now complains about his stance on this issue.
"On one hand, he says he supports local control, and on the other jams something at us from the federal government," Nelson said.
'I know my kids'

In cities such as Lincoln, the state capital, school administrators oppose the new law and embrace their state's flexible system. More reliable than standardized tests in helping students improve, they say, are the meetings between principals and teachers to discuss the progress of each student. That, they say, is also the ideal way to ensure that disadvantaged children are not neglected.

"I know all of my kids; I look at every single kid," said DeAnn Currin, principal at Lincoln's Elliott Elementary, which is across the street from a transmission shop and serves a mostly downtrodden neighborhood. To prove her point, Currin pulled out a list of students.
"He's African-American," she said. "She is European. Asian. Sativeh is African-American, has started one-on-one tutoring, but her behavior is getting in the way. I know my kids."

The new law says states must let parents and other taxpayers compare one school with another across the state. Christensen, the education commissioner, said Nebraska has no plans to abide by that.

"Hell no," he said. "What good would it be to compare Omaha public schools, with its 75,000 students, to Lake Alice Elementary School in the western part of the state, which has 25 kids? That accomplishes nothing."

Supporters of the new law say they are frustrated by Nebraska's defiance, which, they say, could undercut Bush's effort to impose accountability on schools across the country. Some education reformers warn that if the administration gives even one state too much wiggle room, the entire foundation of the law could crumble.

In defense of its system, Nebraska officials point out that, when measured on a national achievement test, their state performs well. Critics, though, say Nebraska has smaller percentages of lower-income minority students, who tend to produce lower scores, than do many other states. Judged only on the basis of its minority students, critics say, Nebraska doesn't look so good.

"If I were an education official in a state where 79 percent of my African-American students were not at a basic math level, I'd be a little reticent about leading some crusade against this new law," said Sandy Kress, a former Bush education adviser who helped draft the law.

Nebraska officials stress that they don't think the system Bush first developed as Texas governor fits their state.

"We're not Texas," Christensen said. "With San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and big urban schools, maybe the only way to straighten them up is to jerk them up by their bootstraps. And well, if we want to pull on our bootstraps, we'll pull our own."

Send Commissioner Christensen your thank you:

— David L. Greene
Bush education policy gets states' rights jolt
Baltimore Sun
Dec. 30, 2002


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