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New Jersey Assembly OKs bill to override federal "No Child Left Behind" law

TRENTON The state Assembly voted Monday to tell school officials that New Jersey academic goals take priority over the federal "No Child Left Behind" law, but only after Republicans rose to defend Washington's program, which critics say is underfunded.

"We need to follow our state mandates as long as the federal funds are not there," said Assemblyman Douglas H. Fisher, D-Cumberland, one of the bill's sponsors.

Fisher added that the federal and state governments are "duking it out" over the program, backed by President Bush but passed with some Democratic support in 2001.

The vote in the Assembly was 47-25, with seven Republicans voting to abstain and one absent. All 47 Democrats voted in favor, while most Republicans voted against it and a handful abstained.

The New Jersey proposal which has not yet been considered by the Senate would require local school officials to give precedence to the goals of state programs over the goals of the guidelines set out by the No Child Left Behind law.

New Jersey would not be the first to opt out of the federal program. Utah has done so. Other states are weighing the move, calling the federal law an intrusion on local rule.

The federal law sets the bar at which schools must perform so that states and school districts with low-income families can receive federal grants. Education unions praise the law for reaching out to the needs of special education and to speakers of limited English.

The federal law generally holds schools accountable for students' performances and identifies schools that don't meet state standards. Critics say the Bush administration has not provided enough funding for the various reforms.

Assemblyman Joseph R. Malone III, R-Burlington, dramatized his opposition when he quoted state Education Commissioner William Librera as having said no serious issues exist between the state education department and federal managers of the law.

Facing Fisher across the Assembly chamber, Malone said he had checked as recently as midday Monday with Librera's staff. "It (the proposed law) is of no practical value. No substantive problems have been identified by the Department of Education," he said.

"Why are they so sensitive about this?" A co-sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, said of Republicans in an interview. "It's for educating the kids."

Assemblyman Guy R. Gregg, R-Morris, peppered Fisher with so many questions that, in mid-debate, he said, "I am not out here to trick you."

Hesitating, Fisher said that in one New Jersey congressional district, $29 million had been promised by Washington but only $20 million had materialized. "Each district around the state has numbers that are similar," said Fisher.


— Tom Baldwin
Asbury Park Press


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