A flawed `fix'

March 27, 2007

As if President Bush was not beleaguered enough, many Republicans are attacking his signature domestic legislation, the No Child Left Behind law. They would restore some flexibility to the states while lifting the hammer of federal accountability. The law certainly needs fixing, but that approach goes in the wrong direction.

What the states need most are more money, more expert help in meeting the law's requirements and perhaps some different ways to measure progress. Such shortcomings help account for the fact that while NCLB enjoyed broad bipartisan support, complaints about the law have gotten louder since it took effect in 2002 and states have had to engage in the hard job of implementing it.

And although many of its goals of accountability are laudable, the means are often flawed. It relies too heavily on standardized tests and it has been consistently underfunded, with a five-year shortfall of about $40 billion.

FOR THE RECORD - In an editorial yesterday, a reference to $6.1 billion in next year's budget should have included all education spending, not only for the No Child Left Behind law.

Little wonder that many states are grumbling as Congress considers reauthorization of the law. Recently, more than 50 Republicans in the House and Senate expressed support for a bill that would allow any state that disagreed with NCLB's accountability measures, such as testing, to skip the requirement while remaining eligible for federal education aid. The bill is another attempt by some of the more conservative GOP members to deal with objections that the federal government has become far too intrusive in K-12 education, which is mainly a local concern, and that NCLB is too rigid because it requires schools to make adequate yearly progress or face sanctions.

Although the law is hardly perfect, this recycled proposal looks backward rather than forward. It would return a lot of flexibility to states but would take away a lot of accountability that, at the least, has made it more difficult for states to ignore or gloss over student performance.

As it is debated over the next several months, refinements are needed, particularly more money to help states realize NCLB's goals. Last week, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts pushed Senate Democrats to add $6.1 billion for NCLB in next year's budget. That at least puts a dent in its funding gap - a much better way to go than the Republican proposal.

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