head: "So much for local control’: Bush’s education law has more teeth than some thought | SummitDaily.com

head: "So much for local control’: Bush’s education law has more teeth than some thought

by Reid Williams

SUMMIT COUNTY – The law means more standardized tests for Summit students, but also more funding. It means more qualified teachers, assuming the school district can find them. And, it means the stakes for teachers and administrators just went up.

Colorado’s education professionals are discovering President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education act has more implications than first thought. The president signed the policy into law in January after it was approved by both houses of the Legislature. With standardized testing and accountability measures already in place in Colorado, many administrators thought the law would have little effect. That opinion is changing.

“We’re finding this is a big deal,” said Peg Portscheller, former superintendent of Lake County Schools and current executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. “This is the most intrusive, prescriptive piece of federal education legislation ever enacted.”

The 1,200-page law sets out new requirements for schools across the country. H.R.-1, as it is formally designated, requires annual testing in reading and math for grades 3-8 and once in high school. Schools must institute the testing by 2005. The law requires testing in science once in grades 3-5 and once in grades 10-12 by 2007. The law also mandates a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders to participate in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests.

The purpose of the testing is to show annual progress. Although defining “annual progress” will be up to the state, schools that aren’t able to close the gap between high-performing and struggling students will face sanctions. The law outlines punitive measures for each year a school’s students don’t show progress and ultimately allows for reassignment of teachers, administrators and school funds. Schools have 12 years to raise all students to proficient academic performance. The successful schools will receive monetary awards.

“This adds a whole new dimension to school report cards,” Portscheller said. “The district will have to look hard at its disadvantaged student populations and disaggregate the data from the overall scores to show their progress. And the hammers of sanctions are bigger than they ever were. There are no waivers: Everybody plays by the rules, or they take your funding away. So much for local control.”

To help the students achieve that proficiency, the law outlines requirements for providing qualified teachers. Although the exact rules haven’t been written, the intent of H.R.-1 is to eliminate emergency certifications for teachers, special allowances that permit teachers to teach in areas outside their training. The law requires high school teachers possess a college degree in the subject matters they teach, and paraprofessionals will have to complete an associate’s degree or two years of college, and possibly a skills test.

Bush touted the plan as giving schools more money to meet these demands, and more flexibility in spending the money.

Colorado schools are expected to receive an additional $73 million in federal money in the next school year, about a 35 percent increase from 2000. The money will be directed to disadvantaged students, teacher training, after-school programs, anti-violence and drug initiatives and testing.

Schools also will be permitted to combine funds earmarked for special programs to better meet their individual needs.

The skepticism

“I’m still not convinced this is going to help like they say it will,” Summit Superintendent Wes Smith said. “I see this as a step away from local control. It’s also designed for failing schools, especially urban schools, and that’s not us. Denver or Jeffco catch a cold, and the rest of the state gets the medicine – that’s what this is.”

In addition to stints as a superintendent, a principal and a teacher, Smith also served as an advisor in the federal Department of Education from 1993 to 1994. He said the mantra then was “about local control.” The rule was “feds had to deal with the state and could go around them to dictate to the schools.” That’s not true anymore, Smith said.

More and more, Smith said, the state and federal governments are telling Summit Schools how to go about their business. At the same time, they’re giving the district less money. Summit County pays for 96 percent of its school district’s operating funds; the other four percent comes from the state, with a little thrown in from federal grants. And yet, Smith said, in 2001, the school district was required to submit more than 30 new reports to the state. It’s what education administrators call “the unfunded mandate”: Do it, they say, but you figure out how to pay for it.

Smith said he would be surprised if the funding Summit County received from Bush’s education act amounts to more than $100,000. As the Summit School Board goes through its budget process, to be completed this summer, it will consider proposals for literacy, English as a Second Language and gifted student programs totaling more than $800,000.

“The people of Summit are very committed to the schools; they didn’t need to be kicked or prodded,” Smith said. “The state Constitution says it is the duty of the school board to set the curriculum. But with state standards and national expectations, that duty is becoming usurped.”

The superintendent does see some positive effects of H.R.-1. The stipulations for qualified teachers will help raise salaries. Smith said he applauds the idea of closing the gap between struggling students and their peers, despite questioning whether standardized tests are a good motivator for students and how schools will pay for them.

But in the end, Smith said, the new law scares him.

“I foresee a flight by the middle and upper-middle classes, regardless of race, from the failing schools,” Smith said. “It will contribute to the decline of those schools and destroy neighborhoods. We know that parental involvement is a key to school success and, if anything, this will take that away. Federalizing education is not the right step.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.

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