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This editorial appeared in Thursday's Anchorage Daily News:
The federal No Child Left Behind Act is a vigorous subject of debate in Alaska's hotly contested U.S. Senate race, and for good reason. With this one-size-fits-all law, the federal government has stuck its nose deep into what has traditionally been the province of state and local governments. While the intentions are good - ensuring all students learn at least the basics - the execution is often heavy-handed. The funding added by the act, though helpful, falls well short of what is needed to meet the act's mandates and boost student performance.
No Child Left Behind's biggest problems are becoming more well known in Alaska. It demands unrealistically high qualifications for teachers and teacher aides in small rural schools. Districts out there have enough trouble filling vacancies as it is.
Efforts to teach Native languages in early grades suffer because of the act. Districts with immersion programs must develop their own tests in the local language or test students in English.
Until recent rule changes by the Bush administration, performance standards for learning-disabled students and limited-English students were unrealistically high. Schools have been labeled as "failing" for attendance problems on test day or the shortcomings of a small number of students.
Federal rules don't distinguish between a school that does a mediocre job with highly skilled students who easily meet minimum standards and schools that do a good job with harder-to-educate students. The "accountability" so touted by proponents of the act becomes more and more punitive - but only for so-called failing schools with large numbers of impoverished students. (Those impoverished schools depend critically on the extra federal aid that triggers sanctions under the act.)
As those sanctions kick in, the act tilts the playing field away from public education toward private or religious "choices." When the law opens options for "supplemental services" from nonpublic sources, the programs don't have to serve disabled or limited-English students or follow all federal civil rights laws.
Then there's the matter of funding. As usual, Congress and the president didn't come anywhere close to providing enough money to meet all the new requirements set down in No Child Left Behind. The National Education Association estimates that another $9.4 billion would have to be added to the amount President Bush proposes to spend next year.
Though Alaska schools showed good progress meeting the federally mandated benchmarks this year, next year will be a different story. The percentage of a school's students who have to produce "proficient" test scores jumps significantly higher.
Some of what's wrong with No Child Left Behind can be fixed with more flexible implementation. After initial resistance, the Bush administration has backed off from some of its most rigid and troublesome rules. It will take steady pressure from Congress, local districts and states to ensure the flexibility and the federal funding needed to meet the act's worthy goals.