Alaska editorial: Federal law doesn't fit Alaska schools

Posted: Thursday, July 16, 2009

Eight years ago, Congress approved a strict federal law demanding improvements in the nation's schools. The law never fit Alaska well, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has once again proposed legislation to make some necessary corrections.

Murkowski has spent a long time advocating for these changes - most of the more than six years she has served in Washington. With the No Child Left Behind law possibly up for reauthorization later this year, she and other reform advocates have a better chance of success.

Murkowski reintroduced her bill Thursday. It contains several provisions that would follow common sense rather than a rigid formula that dictates how schools must be run. The changes are endorsed by school administrators, teachers and school boards.

The No Child Left Behind law requires "highly qualified" teachers in the classroom for every subject. It sounds great, until one starts looking at how to accomplish that in small, rural schools. There, teachers still early in their careers are required to teach multiple subjects. It's not possible for them to be highly qualified in all of them. Murkowski's bill would allow such schools to satisfy the federal mandate through "distance delivery" instruction by highly qualified teachers. This is possible with the Internet and other technology available today.

The federal law also cuts no slack for schools that show tremendous improvements in their students' performance. Some Alaska schools are bringing in students who score among the worst in the nation, yet within a few years they are approaching mid-range performance. If those students still do not meet the proficiency standards, their schools can be punished. Instead, Murkowski's bill would allow substantial proficiency improvements to count as "success."

Murkowski would also give greater allowance for students who suffer from disabilities or who are new to English. If such students fall below the proficiency objectives but are making substantial progress, she says, the schools and their teachers should not be punished with firings, closings or takeovers, as is prescribed by current law.

Murkowski noted that she has been "talking with Alaskans about NCLB since I came to the Senate." She said her bill won't address every problem with the federal law, but it will help correct several. Congress should listen to the senator who, with this legislation, has demonstrated her proficiency in listening to her constituents.



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