Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Utah Says No to Nickelby

No, not Nicholas Nickelby, the novel by Charles Dickens, but No Child Left Behind which we in the ed business, ever fond of acronyms, have labeled NCLB, which is pronounced as…you guessed it. (I sometimes think there’s somebody out there who’s sole job is to come up with acronyms for grants and programs.) Anyway, the legislature in Utah has voted to forbid the state from spending any local money to implement NCLB.

This came after desperate pleas from the White House and the Department of Education not to pass the law, which, in this extremely Republican state, is considered an embarrassment to Bush. But the legislators considered NCLB to be an infringement on the state’s right to set its own education agenda and the cost of implementation would be too high.

NCLB is the signature piece of education reform legislation that Bush trumpeted as his legacy to improving education in America. Passed in 2002, it requires schools that receive federal funding to raise their standardized test scores to a specified level or lose their funding. The idea was that local school districts would pour money into underfunded schools and move them up the food chain. But, like many federal mandates, NCLB didn’t come with any funding for the local districts, and most states, whose education budgets are already under terrific strain, had to scramble to come up with money to pay for NCLB.

There’s another issue here. NCLB, in theory, is a good idea – after all, who can argue with improving test scores? But it fails to take into account such things as districts such as Miami-Dade or Los Angeles with students where English is a second language for many (Miami-Dade‘s website is trilingual – English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole), immigrant students who have had no formal education before their arrival in the U.S., or students with disabilities. Regardless of these elements, if the school doesn’t improve its score, it loses funding, shifting it to schools where the kids do better. Not only is that backwards – you should spend the money to mend it, not end it – it puts tremendous pressure on the teachers and administrators to teach to the test, regardless of what else might be in the curriculum. That’s not education, it’s rote memorization.

And finally, where is the legendary Republican tradition of being against federal interference in local affairs and their disdain for unfunded mandates? In this case, Utah seems to think that they’re not worth a plugged nickel.