in the collection
Attacks on Education Law Leave Democrats in a Bind
Published: January 12, 2004
Never mind that most of the Democratic presidential candidates voted two years ago for a bill that Republicans and Democrats alike hailed as the most significant federal education legislation in four decades. Listening to them recently has made it easy to forget.
As President Bush toured the country last week promoting the second anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act, Senator John Edwards declared, "We need to fix it and we need to change it and we need to fund it." Senator John Kerry derided its heavy focus on test scores. Representative Richard A. Gephardt criticized it for placing too many federal requirements on local schools.
Gen. Wesley K. Clark called it "a failure," and Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, said the law was "making American education worse, not better."
The debate over education in this year's campaign has in many ways resulted in a strange role reversal.
Republicans who for years argued that the federal Department of Education should be abolished are championing legislation that imposes a strict testing regimen and penalizes school districts for failure. Democrats, traditionally associated with federal programs and mandates, are arguing for more state and local freedom.
"This is simply federal bureaucracy run amok," Dr. Dean said last week.
The Democrats have long considered education their issue, and those the legislation aims to help — black and Hispanic families with children in failing urban schools — their constituency.
But in a departure from Republican tradition, President Bush used education in 2000 to help define himself as a "compassionate conservative." The education law was one of the first he pushed through Congress, and he worked with Democrats to do so.
Though some groups close to Democrats, like teachers' unions, have fundamental problems with the legislation, many Democrats say the party abandons the law at its peril,
The centrist Democratic Leadership Council last week warned that backing away from the act was conceding leadership on education to Mr. Bush. "It is wrong to subordinate Democratic principles to a fanatical determination to oppose Bush 100 percent of the time," it said in a statement, "even on those rare occasions when he moves in the right direction, however fecklessly."
The candidates have tried to meet this challenge by arguing that the law needs to be changed and financed better, not repealed. But many Democrats say they have fallen short in explaining how to do that.
"When you start to hear national Democrats talking as if they are keynote speakers at the Federalist Society, that should be a cause for concern," said Andrew J. Rotherham, director of education policy for the Progressive Policy Institute, referring to a conservative legal group.
"It's a tightrope," added Mr. Rotherham, who was a special assistant to the president for domestic policy in the Clinton White House. "But there are plenty of ways to walk it. Just railing against it, being angry, is not only counterproductive in the short term politically, but counterproductive to the values Democrats hold, which is equity for poor and minority kids."
Until the last few weeks, the Democratic candidates have criticized the education law mainly on the grounds that the budgets from the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress have not provided as much money as promised in the act. Using Congressional figures, the Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman and Dean campaigns all say there is close to an $8 billion gap this year between what was promised and what was appropriated.
But more recently, the attacks have sharpened to focus on the law's requirements for testing, standards and achievement. The criticism reflects complaints from teachers' unions, but also groups that supported the law.
The legislation requires all schools to make adequate yearly progress on standardized tests, with sanctions for those that do not improve. But states can set their own standards for passing the tests.
Like others, Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonpartisan group that supported the bill, argues that states have an incentive to set a low threshold so that more students pass. States with higher standards risk penalties, even if their students score better than those in states with lower standards.
The law also requires schools to separate the scores of groups — like blacks, Hispanics and those who are still learning English — and to show that all groups are making progress. If a school performs well over all but one group does not, the school can be declared low-performing. All schools must show progress by 2014 or risk being shut down.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, from Connecticut, has been the most supportive of the law, arguing that the problems are natural growing pains.
"I'll listen to the teachers and the principals about changing some of the requirements," Mr. Lieberman said in a debate on Jan. 4 in Iowa. "But anybody who says they're going to pull back and repeal No Child Left Behind is turning their back on the students, and particularly the low-income students, of America. I won't do that."
Dr. Dean has been its harshest critic, at times calling for its dismantling, a pledge that helped him win the endorsement of the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Education Association. Last week, Dr. Dean said he would not repeal the act. By the time he took office, he said, too many provisions would be in effect for that to be practical. But he said he would eliminate high-stakes tests, that is, using test scores alone to determine whether students graduate or schools remain accredited.
Mr. Kerry, from Massachusetts, has also suggested other ways of measuring progress, like graduation rates and attendance rates. He has suggested rewarding states that set higher standards, by easing the yearly requirements for progress. And he has proposed an education trust fund to pay for the act, so that it would not be subject to appropriations debates each year.
Other candidates have also criticized the way the act works. The Rev. Al Sharpton, for instance, has said that the threat of penalties has meant that teachers promote students who meet only minimum standards, "without regard for the child's education."
Dr. Dean and Mr. Kerry say the lack of federal money has forced states to rely on multiple-choice tests to measure progress. Such tests are cheaper but not tailored to what individual schools teach. Similarly, General Clark and Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio say that the testing requirements encourage "teaching to the test" rather than what Mr. Kucinich calls a "broad-based curriculum."
Mr. Edwards, from North Carolina, criticizes the tests as simply a one-year snapshot of students in a particular grade. It would be better, he has argued, to track cohorts of students and measure their progress over a longer period of time. He has also suggested that in some schools, groups like blacks or Hispanics are often so small that it is unfair to penalize the schools when one group does not improve. He has argued for focusing on truly failing schools, giving bonuses to teachers there.
Dr. Dean, Mr. Gephardt and Carol Moseley Braun have accused the Bush administration of setting schools up to fail as a way of getting a voucher plan in place when not all schools succeed by 2014. The education law, Ms. Braun argues, is "part and parcel of a plan to just destroy public education."
But primarily, the Democrats argue that localities should get back more control of education. In fact, it was difficult to discern the difference between Dr. Dean and Mr. Gephardt, the congressman from Missouri, in conference calls just hours apart last week, on the day Mr. Bush was promoting the law in St. Louis.
"I think we need more input from local educators to allow some more latitude in terms of trying to determine whether or not children are reaching the standards," Mr. Gephardt told reporters.
Dr. Dean said, "I really do think that local communities can best determine the needs of their own kids and how to run their public school systems."
By KATE ZERNIKE
New York Times
INDEX OF THE EGGPLANT