Lawmakers grill feds about Bush's schools law

Posted: Friday, January 31, 2003

Lawmakers questioned a federal official Thursday about whether President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education law will work in Alaska.

Ken Meyer, a legislative liaison with the U.S. Department of Education, briefly explained the law to members of House committees dealing with education, then heard their complaints for more than an hour.

"I don't think we can do all the things you want us to," said Rep. Carl Gatto, a Palmer Republican. "We cannot do things that are literally impossible."

For instance, Gatto said, the act calls for students to be given the choice of attending another school if their school's test scores are too low. In some parts of the state that would require flying students to distant schools away from their families, he said.

Requiring all teachers to be experts in the subject areas they teach also is unrealistic in some tiny schools that have just one or two teachers, he said.

School superintendents in Juneau and Skagway, who did not attend the hearing, said today they expect that their districts will be in compliance with the law.

Outgoing Juneau Superintendent Gary Bader said the law will be a continuous challenge to all schools in the state, but added he expects Juneau to do well in comparison with smaller school districts.

Bader noted the Juneau School Board passed a provision in 1997 requiring teachers to have completed 24 hours of university credits in the subjects they teach.

Michael Dickens, superintendent for the Skagway schools, said his district has only about 120 students but some of the highest test scores in the state.

But he noted, "Skagway is an aberration because it's prosperous although small."

A provision for replacing teachers in schools that don't have good test scores is no solution in rural districts that already have trouble recruiting and keeping teachers on staff for more than a year, said Rep. Mary Kapsner, a Bethel Democrat.

Rep. Sharon Cissna, an Anchorage Democrat, raised concerns that the expectations are too high for children with fetal alcohol syndrome, which she said is a much bigger problem in Alaska than in most states.

Some FAS children simply do not have the cognitive abilities of other children, Cissna said.

"These kids will never get up to that standard," she said.

"What do we do if we do not educate these children?" Meyer asked in reply. "The assumption under 'No Child Left Behind' is that every child can learn."

Meyer did not have answers to many of the legislators' questions, but promised to find them. He emphasized that the department intends to allow states much flexibility.

But the Bush administration won't back off the basic goal that all children be taught, Meyer said.

"There have been no waivers, and the administration is pretty adamant about that," Meyer said.

Meyer said Alaska's problems are different from those of other states, but it is not the only part of the country with challenges. For instance, inner-city school districts also struggle to attract and keep quality teachers, he said.

Meyer said the federal government is providing more money for states to meet the law's requirements. But committee members questioned whether there had been corresponding decreases in other education programs.

A state Department of Education official said the new law has meant a net increase in federal education dollars to Alaska - from $157 million to $180 million.

The state must submit its plan for meeting requirements of the federal law today.

State education department spokesman Harry Gamble said one element of the plan may be regional learning centers in hub communities where students might spend a few weeks to a month concentrating on subjects not available in tiny rural schools.

Distance education delivered through technology also likely will play a role in the plan, Gamble said.

• Empire reporter Timothy Inklebarger contributed to this report.

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