States Question No Child Left Behind Act

States have several issues with the No Child Left Behind law. A big one is money, but many states view the law's requirements on teacher qualification and testing special education students as unrealistic.

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CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

I'm Claudio Sanchez in Washington.

Here's what many states say is unreasonable about No Child Left Behind. As we just heard, states say they're not getting nearly enough money to do what the law requires. Besides, states say some of the law's goals are unrealistic, like getting learning-disabled students and kids who don't speak English to pass standardized tests, or mandating that all classroom teachers be highly qualified. Worst of all, some say, the No Child Left Behind law usurps state and local control of education.

Ms. CHRIS CURL (Deputy State Superintendent of Schools, Utah): They are controlling a lot of what's happening here. And if we don't play by the rules, then we would jeopardize our funding.

SANCHEZ: Chris Curl is Utah's deputy state superintendent of schools. She says Utah could lose over $70 million in federal aid because state lawmakers have told school districts to ignore No Child Left Behind if it conflicts with state and local education goals.

Ms. CURL: It wasn't about thumbing our nose or our attitudes with No Child Left Behind; this is a state's right and we take it serious.

SANCHEZ: For her part, US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has said claiming states' rights is not an excuse for shortchanging children, and she will not negotiate if it means giving up on some kids.

Secretary MARGARET SPELLINGS (Education Department): It reminds me of some of the kind of old-style thinking that we had in the past before we knew that all children are teachable and educable and all children are children of promise.

SANCHEZ: At this gathering of special education researchers and lobbyists earlier this summer, Spellings said she'll be flexible with states that are addressing some basic questions.

Sec. SPELLINGS: Are more children reading by the end of third grade? Are graduation rates rising? Is there a strong plan in place to make sure all children, including those with disabilities, are on grade level?

SANCHEZ: Spellings has accused some states of dragging their feet and shown she can play hardball. She has already fined Georgia and Minnesota, and leveled a whopping $840,000 fine on Texas for exempting way too many special education students from the state's standardized tests last year, a move that stunned Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley.

Ms. SHIRLEY NEELEY (Texas Education Commissioner): Yes, it is a lot of money. But I stand by the decision I made because it was the right thing to do for Texas children. I'm just grateful the fine wasn't higher.

SANCHEZ: Still, some critics say Spellings has been inconsistent with this carrot-and-stick approach. Ross Weiner has been monitoring states' compliance with No Child Left Behind for The Education Trust, an education policy group based in Washington.

Mr. ROSS WEINER (The Education Trust): There are some areas where they've given in to some state demands that I think we at The Education Trust don't think are in the best interest of school children, and this really seems to have more to do with politics.

SANCHEZ: States, for example, have flooded the Education Department asking for all kinds of waivers, says Weiner. He says most states are still in denial about the educational mess they've allowed for decades.

Mr. WEINER: That was always going to be the biggest challenge of making the No Child Left Behind Act work. Nobody wants to talk about schools that are doing rotten.

SANCHEZ: In her most conciliatory remarks to date, Spellings this summer took the unusual step of discussing the ongoing disputes with states publicly at a meeting of the nation's second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers.

Sec. SPELLINGS: We ought to be about results for kids over bureaucratic compliance so long as we're abiding by what I call the bright-line principles of the law; annual assessment, desegregation of data. I mean, staying the course on the big things, that's what I mean by sensible and workable.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sec. SPELLINGS: And there's more to come.

SANCHEZ: More to come is right, with a list of struggling schools likely to grow as tougher testing requirements kick in this fall. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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