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Dean Presents a Target By Opposing Bipartisan Education Reforms

Despite furious battles over funding, a bipartisan consensus on the content of President Bush’s education reforms is holding. But that could change if former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean wins the Democratic presidential nomination. [IMGCAP(1)]

Dean prides himself on being the only Democratic candidate who opposed Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law, which was negotiated with key Democrats and passed through Congress by overwhelming margins in 2001.

The law requires states to develop tough new education achievement standards, annually test children in grades three through eight, report the results, and take action to improve inadequate schools, including giving parents alternative education choices.

The measure was passed — 87-10 in the Senate, 381-41 in the House — out of a bipartisan perception that, despite billions of dollars in added spending over the past decade, student performance continued to lag.

New evidence gathered since the law’s passage only reinforces the need for standards and accountability, especially to help low-income and minority children catch up to their peers.

NCLB requires schools to show not only overall average improvement on tests, but also progress by low-income students, African-Americans, Hispanics and disabled students.

In Congress, even as Democrats lambaste the Bush administration and the GOP for underfunding NCLB, they have continued to endorse the purpose of the law.

On Aug. 21, issuing a report titled “Broken Promises — the GOP Record on Education,” Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a principal co-author of the law, declared that “NCLB was not just another law passed by Congress. It was the most important federal education law since 1965,” when federal aid to education began.

Similarly, in remarks prepared for a blistering Senate speech today, another co-author, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), declares, “We know what works in school reform. When we provide the resources, we know that schools can be turned around.”

Democrats contend — correctly — that Bush’s 2004 budget contains $8 billion less for NCLB than the 2001 law contemplated, and allege this constitutes a breach of faith on his part, especially in view of severe state budget pressures and education cuts.

In the 2004 election, Education Secretary Rod Paige told me, he expects that education funding will be a “hot topic.” He argues the administration line that NCLB is adequately funded — and that alleged shortfalls are simply the difference between what Congress has authorized and appropriated.

But if Dean becomes the Democratic nominee, the education debate will be more elemental — whether the federal government should impose standards-setting requirements on the states and hold them to account. His opposition to NCLB deserves to be a topic of debate among Democratic candidates.

In a January session with Roll Call reporters and editors, Dean declared NCLB “the Every School Board Left Behind bill” and said of his Democratic rivals, “I don’t know how these guys think they are going to get the support of the teachers unions, having voted for it.”

He also declared that the bill was “an enormous power grab on the part of the federal government” and a “huge unfunded mandate” for the states.

In June, Dean declared that “the No Child Left Behind Act has been a disaster for students, parents and teachers across the country. The president promised better schools. Instead, he has delivered more paperwork, lower standards and higher property taxes as state and local governments scramble to comply with this unfounded mandate.”

Dean promises to “reform” NCLB, presumably by reducing federal requirements. He claims he believes in “high standards,” but evidently he does not believe in federal pressure to enforce them.

Paige, in an interview, emphatically denied that NCLB was an “unfunded mandate,” claiming “there are requirements in this law for funding by the law. The law contains language that says things that are not funded are not required.”

Paige said fiscal 2003 funding for NCLB programs increased by more than 36 percent above 2001 levels and 60 percent above 2000 levels.

And, to counter the charge of a “federal power grab,” he said that all 50 states have devised and submitted education improvement plans — admittedly, as a condition of getting federal aid.

Paige acknowledged that there has been “hand-wringing” and “squawking” from states, local school districts and unions over the huge number of schools that fail to meet their own goals for “adequate yearly progress” or have been found “in need of improvement.”

About two-thirds of California schools failed to meet AYP goals this year and 80 percent in Florida, including some high-quality schools where minority students lagged behind. Nationally, about 36 percent of schools missed AYP goals.

Such results — along with national test results showing that only about 15 percent of black 12th-graders read proficiently — show the desperate need for a national effort to promote improvement.

It’s all very well for a presidential candidate like Dean to demand more money for the schools. It’s shocking that he’d oppose a national program to enforce higher standards. His rivals should call him on it.