Thursday, June 12, 2008

Democrats Offer Plans to Revamp Schools Law

June 12, 2008

Democrats are dividing into camps as they debate a new course for education policy after President Bush leaves office.

On Wednesday, a group of a dozen prominent educators and lawmakers, led by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein of New York and the Rev. Al Sharpton, said the United States’ public schools shortchanged poor black and Latino children in a way that was “shameful,” and urged Washington to squeeze teachers and administrators harder to raise achievement among minorities.

On Tuesday, about 60 prominent educators and academics issued another manifesto, which criticized the federal No Child Left Behind law and argued that schools alone could not close a racial achievement gap rooted in economic inequality. They urged a new emphasis on health clinics and other antipoverty programs that could help poor students arrive at school ready to learn.

The groups issuing the statements were composed overwhelmingly of Democrats.

Mr. Klein and Mr. Sharpton’s statement argued that federal policy should continue to hold schools accountable for raising the achievement of poor African-American and Latino youths, which is a focus of the federal law, but should also seek to assign more effective teachers to the nation’s neediest classrooms. This is an area where the statement said the law had been weak.

Mayor Cory A. Booker of Newark, the president of the Colorado Senate and the leaders of the Washington and Baltimore school systems also signed the statement.

The statement included a passage labeling teachers union contracts a significant obstacle to increasing the achievement of poor students.

“We must insist that our elected officials confront and address head-on crucial issues that created this crisis: teachers’ contracts and state policies that keep ineffective teachers in classrooms and too often make it nearly impossible to get our best teachers paired up with the students who most need them,” it said.

The other manifesto was signed by two schools superintendents, Beverly L. Hall of Atlanta and Rudy Crew of Miami-Dade County, and Thomas W. Payzant, the former superintendent in Boston, as well as the civil rights leader Julian Bond and former Attorney General Janet Reno, among others.

It criticized the No Child Left Behind law, Mr. Bush’s signature domestic initiative, as narrowing instruction in some schools to little more than reading and math, and called for a “broader, bolder approach” that would increase investment in health and other services in poor communities and rely less exclusively on schools to solve the nation’s social problems.

“Some schools have demonstrated unusual effectiveness,” said the statement, published on Tuesday in paid space in The New York Times and The Washington Post. “But even they cannot, by themselves, close the entire gap between students from different backgrounds.”

“Reducing social and economic disadvantages can also improve achievement,” it said.

Neither document mentioned the presidential campaign, but signers of both said the documents were being made public now in hopes of generating more debate about education policies in the general election campaign than what had occurred during the primaries.

“With the Democratic primary ending and the general campaign starting, there’s the sense that now is the time to lay out different visions of what our education policy should be,” said Andrew Rotherham, a Democrat who is co-founder of Education Sector, a research group in Washington, and who co-signed the statement of principles issued by Mr. Klein and Mr. Sharpton. “Presidential campaigns are in many ways national conversations, so now is the time to lay out a new agenda."

An effort last year to reauthorize the federal law, which Congress passed in Mr. Bush’s first year with bipartisan majorities, fell apart. Congress is unlikely to try again to rewrite the legislation, the most important statement of federal policy toward public schools, until well after a new president takes office.

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