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Most Pennsylvania School Chiefs Oppose 'No Child Left Behind'

Ohanian Comment: Waiting for an administration change certainly doesn't make sense--especially since Democrats support NCLB as much as Republicans do.

Superintendents from 171 school districts in 19 Western Pennsylvania counties yesterday added a loud chorus to the protests against the No Child Left Behind Act.

At a news conference at North Hills Junior High School, the school leaders signed a position paper that they say addresses "critical flaws" in the controversial federal education law, signed by President Bush in 2002.

To date, 336 school superintendents have signed the statement, according to Baldwin-Whitehall School Superintendent Charles Faust -- about two-thirds of the state's 501 school districts.

Faust said that while the superintendents "accept the challenge from our federal government" to improve schools and learning, "we deem it professional malpractice not to point out these system flaws."

Some school leaders and state legislatures across the country have complained that the law requires local school districts to create new programs and hire more employees but doesn't provide more funding.

And yesterday, the superintendents particularly complained that special education students and students who speak little English are treated unfairly when it comes to standardized tests.

For children with behavior problems and other mental or emotional disabilities, state standardized tests are simply "punitive," said William Stavisky, superintendent of Greater Latrobe School District.

"We want to avoid the failure cycle, we want to keep them in our midst," said Stavisky. "But one test doesn't cut it."

Kathleen Kelley, superintendent of Indiana Area School District, said 42 students in her district are considered "limited English proficient," or LEP.

The foreign-born children speak a total of eight languages, from German to two different Arabic dialects.

Yet, she said, the children take state tests in English and are stumped by instructions such as "Write about an issue in your neighborhood" because they have no experience with traditional American neighborhoods.

The school leaders acknowledged that low test scores by special ed and LEP students can damage an entire school district, because the federal law requires all such "subgroups" to get proficient scores on state tests.

If those minority groups fail -- even if the rest of the student body scores well -- the school can land on a list of poor performers and face increasingly strict sanctions.

Superintendents said yesterday that special education students should be given different tests than other students, and LEP students should get extra help on their tests -- for instance, have the test translated into their native language.

But Ron Tomalis, counselor to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, responded yesterday that it's "a bit of an irony on this day in particular that we would hear those statements."

He was referring to the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that said separate education for black and white students was illegal.

No Child Left Behind, said Tomalis, encourages "the same level of expectations" in all children.

Tomalis said that while some individual schools may see less federal funding this year, overall funding to Pennsylvania has increased 37 percent since 2001 -- from $545 million to $720 million.

Tomalis, a former Pennsylvania education official under former Gov. Tom Ridge, said Pennsylvania schools spend more money on schools and pay teachers higher salaries than almost any other state in the country.

"Often what we hear is school districts need more money," he said. "Maybe what we need to do is look at how we're spending the money."

While Tomalis said yesterday that the Bush administration doesn't anticipate making any additional changes to No Child Left Behind -- a few have been made in the past year -- the Pennsylvania superintendents will present their position paper to state and federal legislators.

White House leadership might change after the November election, Faust acknowledged, "but to wait for a new administration doesn't make sense."

— Jane Elizabeth


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