February 24, 2005
By SAM DILLON
oncluding a yearlong study on the effectiveness of President Bush's sweeping education law, No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers drawn from many states yesterday pronounced it a flawed, convoluted and unconstitutional education reform initiative that has usurped state and local control of public schools.
The report, based on hearings in six cities, praised the law's goal of ending the gap in scholastic achievement between white and minority students. But most of the 77-page report, which the Education Department rebutted yesterday, was devoted to a detailed inventory and discussion of its flaws.
It said the law's accountability system, which punishes schools whose students fail to improve steadily on standardized tests, undermined school improvement efforts already under way in many states and relied on the wrong indicators. The report said that the law's rules for educating disabled students conflict with another federal law, and that it presented bureaucratic requirements that failed to recognize the tapestry of educational challenges faced by teachers in the nation's 15,000 school districts.
"Under N.C.L.B., the federal government's role has become excessively intrusive in the day-to-day operations of public education," the National Conference of State Legislatures said in the report, which was written by a panel of 16 state legislators and 6 legislative staff members.
Several education experts said the panel had accurately captured the views of thousands of state lawmakers, and local educators. If that is so, the report suggests that the Bush administration could face continuing friction with states and school districts as the Department of Education seeks to carry out the law in coming months.
Nine state legislatures are considering various challenges to the law, and the Utah Senate is about to vote on a bill, already approved by the House, that would require state education officials to give priority to Utah's education laws rather than to the federal law. An Illinois school district filed a lawsuit against the Education Department this month in federal court, arguing that No Child Left Behind contradicts provisions of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
The National Conference, which has criticized the federal law in the past, represents the nation's 50 state legislatures, with a membership that includes 3,657 Republicans and 3,656 Democrats, as well as a few dozen elected from smaller parties, as independents or without any party affiliation.
The task force worked for 10 months and held public hearings in Washington, Chicago, Salt Lake City, New York, Santa Fe and Portland, Ore. It also held deliberations in Savannah, Ga.
"They went out and heard lots of things from different people around the country, and this report reflects the breadth and depth of what they heard, and the changes that many people want," said Patricia Sullivan, director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington group, who attended some of the deliberations.
An assistant secretary of education, Ray Simon, met with members of the panel in Washington yesterday to discuss the report.
"The department will continue to work with every state to address their concerns and make this law work for their children," Mr. Simon said in a statement. "But the report could be interpreted as wanting to reverse the progress we've made."
He added: "No Child Left Behind is bringing new hope and new opportunity to families throughout America, and we will not reverse course."
A Republican state senator from New York, Stephen M. Saland, the co-chairman of the task force, called the meeting with Mr. Simon cordial.
"Everybody was in agreement about the goals of the law, but we in the states are concerned that the existing structure is very prescriptive," Mr. Saland said. "We think there are ways of doing accountability that recognize differences among states."
The law will come up for reauthorization in Congress in 2007. But Mr. Saland said he and other members of the task force hoped to persuade Congress to change the law before then.
Several groups that strongly support the federal law took issue with the report.
"My big concern is they did a better job of pinpointing problems than identifying solutions," said Susan Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, a group that represents top corporate executives. "Most of what they call for would be a reversal that would turn back the clock on what N.C.L.B. is trying to accomplish, all in the name of federalism."
One chapter of the report says that the Constitution does not delegate powers to educate the nation's citizens to the federal government, thereby leaving education under state control. The report contends that No Child Left Behind has greatly expanded federal powers to a degree that is unconstitutional..
"This assertion of federal authority into an area historically reserved to the states has had the effect of curtailing additional state innovations and undermining many that had occurred during the past three decades," the report said.
"The task force does not believe that N.C.L.B. is constitutional," it said.
But Steve Kelley, a Democrat who serves in the Minnesota Senate and a co-chairman of the task force, said the conference had no intention of going to court over the law's constitutionality.
The report also examines what the task force called conflicts between the federal law and the disabilities act. Under No Child Left Behind, a disabled eighth grader whom educators deem to be working at a sixth grade level must take examinations for eighth graders. The report said the requirement contradicted provisions in the disabilities act requiring school authorities to design a unique instructional program suited to the needs and abilities of each disabled child.
"N.C.L.B. requires students with disabilities to be tested by grade level, while IDEA mandates that students be taught according to ability," the report said.
A Republican state representative from Utah, Kory M. Holdaway, who is a special education teacher as well as a task force member, said the federal law's provisions for educating the disabled were a special irritant in his state.
Mr. Holdaway has long been a critic of the federal law and voiced legislators' concerns to the White House last year.
"I hope the feds will have an open mind as far as letting us run our educational system as we feel it should be run," he said.