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Oregon Considers Challenging No Child Left Behind Law
Ohanian Comment: It's a pity that money is the issue they're going after. What about teacher professionalism--the right for a Title 1 school's faculty to choose the curriculum it judges best meets the needs of students? What about setting impossible goals and then labeling schools failures? What about the "qualified teacher" strictures? And so on. It seems pathetic that money seems to be the only argument that interests people.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski is weighing a pitch by the nation's largest teachers union to make Oregon a plaintiff in a court challenge to block parts of the federal No Child Left Behind school accountability law.
The National Education Association has been looking since July for a state to sue the Bush administration, arguing that the law requires sweeping changes in schools without paying for them. No state has signed on, despite widespread complaints by educators that the law requires too much of schools.
Kulongoski criticized the law as "a hoax" in a speech to Oregon school board members earlier this month. But his spokeswoman, Mary Ellen Glynn, said Tuesday he hasn't decided whether to go to court.
"No Child Left Behind tells us if our schools are failing, but it doesn't give us any money to fix them," Glynn said. "Whether we will (sue) is still iffy."
The Oregon Education Association, the NEA affiliate in Oregon, has urged the governor to take up the cause, said Mark Toledo, the group's general counsel.
But some fear that suing the Bush administration could backfire on Oregon.
State School Superintendent Susan Castillo said she opposes a lawsuit even though she agrees with Kulongoski, a fellow Democrat, that the law has serious flaws.
"I just hope it doesn't distract from the important work we need to stay focused on, which is trying to close the achievement gap and trying to implement the law as best we can," she said.
The law, approved two years ago with bipartisan support in Congress, requires schools and states to shoulder unprecedented federal accountability for test scores, dropout rates and teacher credentials. Results must be measured in uniform ways and publicly reported. Schools must account for the performance of low-income, minority and special education students and those who speak English as their second language, along with their overall achievement.
For most schools, the only consequence of missing federally mandated performance targets is that they must file a report with the state explaining how they will do better the next year.
The sanctions from the law apply only to schools that receive federal Title I money for disadvantaged students. They no longer can hire teachers and teacher aides who fall short of federal qualifications. And if they miss performance targets year after year, they face escalating consequences, starting with helping students transfer to higher-achieving schools. They also face eventual takeover by an outside agency. States that fail to show progress or report on results can face losing federal money for their state education departments.
Eugene Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of education, said he hopes Kulongoski does not sue. He said he's certain the U.S. Department of Education would win any lawsuit because federal funding for Oregon schools has increased $115 million under No Child Left Behind. States that don't want federal mandates are free to reject federal funds, but states that have weighed that tradeoff have so far opted to accept the law rather than challenge it, Hickok said.
"It's more important that we educate kids than that we compensate lawyers," Hickok said.
Bob Chanin, general counsel for the NEA, said the No Child Left Behind law cannot require schools to do more than the federal government will pay for.
He cited language in the law itself that states: "Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize . . . the federal government . . . to mandate a state or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act. "
Among the provisions of the law that cost too much, Chanin said, are requirements to upgrade the training of many teachers, accommodate students who want to transfer from low-performing schools and create dozens of new tests to measure student achievement, including among special education students and those who need to be tested in languages other than English.
In Oregon, eight schools -- including four in Portland -- have triggered sanctions, resulting in more than 800 students transferring out this fall. Next fall, more than 100 schools will have to help their students transfer to higher-scoring schools unless their achievement improves this year. And roughly 5,000 Oregon teachers must take college coursework or prepare to pass a nationally standardized exam to prove they are highly qualified by 2006.
"Our school districts and our school teachers and our students are being held to certain standards but not being provided with the financial resources to accomplish all those things," said Toledo, the OEA lawyer. "It's one of the most unbelievable intrusions into state and local governmental activity, providing for public education, that there probably ever has been."
Kulongoski and his staff are still gathering information and have set no timetable for deciding whether to sue, said James Sager, the governor's education policy adviser. Sager is the former president of the Oregon Education Association.
Sager said the governor has a gut sense, but no firm numbers to show, that No Child Left Behind is requiring Oregon to spend more than the $208 million that the law brought to the state this year.
Steve Bogart, chairman of the Oregon Board of Education, talked to Kulongoski on Monday but said the two talked little about the possible lawsuit. Bogart, the city administrator of Madras, has mixed feelings about opting to sue.
"There are some very good things in the law as far as accountability that put the state of Oregon and states across the nation on notice that they really need to do a better job. I think that's really commendable," Bogart said. "Whether litigation is the best way to go or not, I just can't say."
Eduardo Angulo, chairman of the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, said the value of the law is to spotlight academic achievement of minority students. A lawsuit is a poor way to fix the law's problem areas, he said.
"We don't want the spotlight on minorities going away, under no circumstances," he said.
Charles Hopson, an African American who is interim principal of Portland's Franklin High School, said he disagreed with the idea that the federal government must provide more money to help states implement the law.
"I think it is more about rigor and expectations than it is about money," he said
Oregon considers challenging No Child Left Behind law
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