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NCLB Renewal Sparks Debate; EdWatch Proposes Changes

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The No Child Left Behind Act turned five years old on January 8, and debates about the act's future have begun in earnest. President Bush, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and the leaders of the Senate and House education committees have all announced they stand by the act and support its demanding achievement goals. Secretary Spellings called on Congress to preserve the act's "core principles," especially the testing and accountability features and the 2014 deadline.

The Bush administration hopes to reauthorize NCLB by the end of the year. However, differences on spending, the new Congress' educational priority on reducing the cost of college, and other factors will probably cause Congress to extend the September 30 reauthorization deadline - perhaps until as late as 2009. Education Week pointed out that three members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee are running for President: Senators Dodd, Clinton and Obama. This could add a political dimension to the committee's work this session.

While many Republicans and Democrats have echoed Spellings' commitment to the substance of NCLB, they also bring their own issues and complaints to the table. Some Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, say the accountability measures are "far too punitive" - they focus on punishing schools that don't perform. Democrats also seem fairly united in believing NCLB is drastically underfunded. The federal government has spent $102 billion on NCLB since 2002, with $21 billion of that in the current school year. Sen. Reid says that full and effective implementation of NCLB programs would have required $55 billion more since 2002.

For their part, conservative Republicans in Congress have expressed discontent with the federal government's new role in dictating states' testing and other programs. That role may continue to increase, as many Democrats favor national standards in some or all subjects.

"The country is on an inexorable march toward national standards, and the question is not if but when and how," Michael Dannenberg of the New America Foundation recently told Fox News. But are national standards really inevitable? Are they desirable?

With the 2014 NCLB deadline approaching, and the act's achievement requirements looking more and more unattainable, the federal government has unprecedented leverage on those states that can't meet the requirements but can't bear to walk away from the funding. As EdWatch's Dr. Allen Quist wrote in the Education Reporter last month, the Dodd-Ehlers bill (SPEAK) currently under consideration would use this fact to take a major step toward national standards. Under SPEAK, states could gain a reprieve from NCLB's punishments if they adopt new standards. The National Assessment Governing Board would be authorized to make or adopt curriculum standards, and the states would be "incentivized" to adopt them.

Ed Watch's Recommendations 
In a proposal for change to NCLB, EdWatch connects the dots between an increasingly federal education system and the international education agreements to which two presidents have committed the United States. The World Declaration on Education for All and the Dakar Framework for Action require the U.S. to institute a national system of education. As EdWatch points out, a national system of education violates the Tenth Amendment. Furthermore, there is no evidence that federal government takeover would actually improve the schools. In this and other areas, EdWatch claims, "NCLB is the method by which the United States is complying with the international education agreements it previously signed."

EdWatch's primary recommendation, therefore, is for the U.S. to withdraw from Education for All and from Dakar "so that education policy can be formulated for the sole purpose of benefiting students in the United States." EdWatch believes that currently, policies and ideas from the UN and from other nations are being forced upon the United States, when they don't really fit. Without the international agreements, lawmakers could more effectively tailor education policy to our nation and our own students. The EdWatch proposal cites a number of other changes to NCLB that it believes will "become both evident and attractive," if lawmakers do begin tailoring policy for our own country. Several of these are listed below.

Competition and accountability. NCLB currently focuses on making schools more accountable to the government. A variety of school choice reforms would make schools accountable to parents. EdWatch says, "Government accountability systems in education will not work, just as they do not work in business and industry."

State and national assessments. If state assessments and the NAEP were more transparent, parents could ensure that the tests measured academic achievement, and not particular attitudes or beliefs (which would make the tests a tool of indoctrination). EdWatch recommends that test questions be released to the public within two years of administration.

Federal curriculum standards. These "have largely been developed, directly or indirectly by the U.S. Department of Education as opposed to being developed by experts in the various academic fields and as opposed to the wishes of parents," and "are replete with political correctness as opposed to genuine academic knowledge." EdWatch recommends that no federal funds go toward curriculum standards, and that all federal departments be required to stop pushing national or international standards.

Vocational education. EdWatch recommends "that states and LEAs be encouraged to make vocational education an option for students after 10th grade."

Severability. States should be able to receive funding for other federal programs, like IDEA and Head Start, whether or not they accept NCLB funding.

Mental screening and treatment. The government should take several steps to halt the increasing intrusion of government into children's mental and emotional lives. For example, federal funds for mental health screening and programs applying socioemotional standards should be eliminated. Screening and psychotropic drugs should not be forced on children, or made a condition of attending school or receiving services.

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