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NC to Protest Law--Sort Of

North Carolina education leaders are joining the rising national chorus of complaints about the federal No Child Left Behind law.
This week, members of the State Board of Education and officials with the Department of Public Instruction plan to travel by bus to Washington to vent their concerns about the law with the state's congressional delegation.
"Our goal is to get our licks in early," said Howard Lee, chairman of the state board. "This is an attempt to establish dialogue and give our representatives insight into the challenges we're facing."

Many educators across the nation say President Bush's No Child initiative is setting unrealistic standards for public schools.

Legislatures in Virginia and Utah, both with Republican majorities, have challenged the law's intrusive sweep. Other states have raised grievances about inadequate money and inflexible rules.

Last week, Minnesota and Arizona joined those states opposing the law, and the school chiefs of 14 states endorsed a joint letter to Education Secretary Rod Paige urging relief.

North Carolina, one of the first states to embrace its own school accountability rules, has been generally supportive of the goal of the federal law. But state education leaders are increasingly worried about the way the law is playing out.

State Superintendent Mike Ward said he wants the federal government to permit North Carolina to use the state's own accountability system -- known as the ABCs of Public Education -- to meet the national standards.

"The No Child Left Behind goals are the right ones," Ward said. "But the process has been substantially flawed. We think we have a better system, and we want the flexibility to use it."

North Carolina's one-day visit to Capitol Hill on Wednesday comes in the wake of several well-publicized moves by the Bush administration to give states more leeway in meeting certain rules seen as especially unreasonable.

This month, the U.S. Department of Education made it easier for teachers in rural schools to be considered minimally qualified if they teach in more than one subject area. And in February, federal education officials announced that immigrant students who lack English proficiency are exempt from required tests in reading and math until their second year in U.S. schools.

"We don't know what precipitated the offering of those olive branches," Lee said. "There appears to be more of an opening for more dialogue."

State board members plan to carry a three-page list of items they see as flaws in the law. Among them:

* An "all-or-nothing" standard for school performance. Schools meet the federal performance goal only if all groups of students -- defined by race, family income and educational disadvantage -- pass state tests in sufficient numbers. Schools can be subject to sanctions if just one subgroup misses in either reading or math.

* Funding. State education leaders worry that federal support will begin to fall short of what is needed to comply with the law. More money is needed for attracting and retaining qualified teachers, data collection, support for struggling students and transportation for students who choose to transfer from low-performing schools to those that meet federal guidelines.

North Carolina this year is receiving $261 million in federal Title I funds to help low-income students -- an increase of almost $50 million from the year before. But the state's estimated allocation for next year is $270 million, only a $9 million increase from current levels.

* Special-education students. Students with learning disabilities are subject to unrealistic expectations for academic performance, state leaders say, hurting both students and schools.

A coalition of North Carolina education organizations raised many similar concerns with the law in a letter last month to state Superintendent Ward. They urged him to seek changes.

Wake schools Superintendent Bill McNeal was among those who endorsed the letter, which represented a group of urban districts.

"I'm hoping that the folks in Washington will receive enough information from the field that they know there are some areas that need to be improved," McNeal said.

"I support No Child Left Behind, but there is a degree of inflexibility that doesn't allow you to do what you need to.

"We want the law to work. We just want it to be fair."

— Todd Silberman
Educators to protest U.S. law
News & Observer


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