The author of the “No Child Left Behind” bill heard concerns from local educators Monday that mirror national uneasiness about the education reform act that increases federal oversight of public schools beginning this year.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, met with about 35 school superintendents, school board members, teachers, elected officials and business leaders at a morning meeting in the library at Central Oregon Community College in Bend put together by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., whose 2nd Congressional District includes Central Oregon.
Most of the meeting was devoted to No Child Left Behind, which is essentially the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Recently, the last of the 50 states submitted their plans for Department of Education approval.
With Carrie Carpenter, Oregon’s teacher of the year on his right side, and Walden on his left, Boehner told the group that since 1965, when ESEA was enacted, the federal government has spent “$300 billion over 37 years and got no results – none, zero, nada.”
“In that time, the poorer schools got worse,” he said, pointing to the achievement gap between richer and poorer school districts.
Boehner said, “we would blink” at failure and “look the other way.” He added that lawmakers aren’t going to “blink” this time.
“If we’re going to contribute $30 billion towards public education, we should expect something in return,” he said.
According to the Department of Education, No Child Left Behind “is based on four basic principles: stronger accountability for results, increased flexibility and local control, expanded options for parents, and an emphasis on teaching methods that have been proven to work.”
The law also financially penalizes a school if it does not meet “adequate yearly progress” for three years. The ultimate goal is to have 100 percent grade level proficiency in 14 years.
“The best thing about the bill isn’t even in it,” Boehner said, adding that it will spur “national debate, a healthy debate, about what it takes to educate our kids.”
Congressman admits ‘unintended consequences’
Boehner acknowledged that it won’t be easy to get “everyone on a path to proficiency,” and that there is the “law of unintended consequences” that happens to every bill.
During a question-and-answer session, Doug Nelson, superintendent of the Bend-La Pine School District, seized upon the phrase “unintended consequences” regarding NCLB.
Nelson had four concerns. The first dealt with how federal funds are distributed under NCLB specifically that a Title I program at a failing school could be shifted to a more successful school thus depriving the failing school of much-needed funds.
Title 1 refers to federal funds earmarked for students needing additional help in reading and math. Typically, such students come from a low socio-economic background.
Secondly, should a student’s parents request a transfer from “Mountain View to La Pine,” Nelson said, the federal government would not help with those transportation costs. A recent New York Times article dealt with similar issues in Montana and Alaska, two of the largest states in the country. In Montana’s case, the subject of teacher qualification is an issue, because what Montana considers qualified would be unqualified by the federal government.
Nelson also addressed teacher qualification. He said a teacher with a “transitional license” could be deemed “not highly qualified” under Oregon’s interpretation of NCLB.
Nelson said that a new teacher in the Bend-La Pine district, who was the teacher of the year in Hawaii, would be considered “not highly qualified” because she is still in the three-year process of gaining her full Oregon license. The educator, Nancy Simons, teaches language arts at Summit High School. Nelson said that her students’ parents would have to be notified that she is not considered highly qualified.
Nelson then talked about the “dangerous schools” provision. He said La Pine High School, which had five weapons incidents the past year is considered a dangerous school even though four of the incidents involved pocket knives, a common item, Nelson said, in such a rural area.
In closing, Nelson said he did not disagree with NCLB’s intention, but he did disagree with how it’s carried out, suggesting that maybe the federal government was “micro-managing” a bit too much, a comment that produced some chuckles in the audience.
Boehner defends ‘No Child Left Behind’
Boehner, looking tan and rested from a trip to the coast, responded that Nelson’s concerns appeared to be state interpretations of NCLB and are not the intent of the law. He also said, to the surprise of some in attendance, that no high schools are involved in NCLB. Only grades 3 through 8 are targeted through a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the “Nation’s Report Card,” which began in 1969.
A recent NAEP in reading showed Oregon’s 4th and 8th graders are doing well.
Janie Teater, a Title 1 teacher at Jewell Elementary in Bend, spoke about the problem of “high mobility schools,” which are schools that have a high percentage of students who move in and out of the school. Often, these students come from a low, socio-economic status.
She said different states have different standards. She said Oregon, which has higher standards, could be penalized if it got a student from a state with lower standards.
Boehner said that this “problem stays somewhat consistent” and wasn’t troubled by it.
“A state can dumb down their standards, but the real test is in NAEP,” he said. “It’s a huge indicator.”
Mary Bryant, principal at Rimrock Educational Alternative Learning Middle School or REALMS, a charter school for “at-risk” students,” asked the seven-term congressman if more federal funding could be forthcoming for facilities for charter schools.
He explained the legislative process and how getting money for buildings would be difficult.
Bryant said that federal money for charter schools “is great for two years, but after that, good luck.”
Congressman says teacher skill, not class size key
Carolyn Platt, chairwoman of the Bend-La Pine School Board, contended that schools such as Rimrock, which fulfill a key need in the district, could lose funding if the students don’t show adequate yearly progress.
“Where do they go if we close that school?” she asked.
Boehner felt that it would be easier for a school with low-achieving students to show progress than a higher-achieving school.
In an interview before the meeting, Boehner dismissed the notion that smaller class sizes are an essential component of academic success. Rather, he pointed to the “determination and quality of the teacher as a far better measure” followed by parental involvement.
Yet, most parents appear to want smaller class sizes for their children. Three years ago, voters in the Sisters School District passed a local option tax, a portion which was dedicated to maintaining smaller class sizes. Seven Peaks, a contract school in the Bend-La Pine district touts its smaller class sizes, as did the private school Sunriver Prep before it went out of business this spring. Its replacement, Cascades Academy, also advertises small class sizes.
Boehner said he was quite aware of Oregon’s financial troubles and the cuts it has meant to schools, including ending the school year early in 90 districts because they ran out of money. But he and Walden noted that it’s not just Oregon that is having financial difficulties, but rather most states are facing similar tough choices.
Since most states are in financial trouble, complying with No Child Left Behind could prove costly. The federal government’s investment is about $1 billion more per year. Estimates by Phi Delta Kappa International, the professional print journal since 1915 for education policy issues, show annual costs of at least $84.5 billion up to $148 billion.
Nelson said Bend-La Pine, which last week shaved $9.7 million from its operating budget, should see an additional $500,000 in Title 1 funds, which will “maintain the program, as is.”
In 1998-99, public spending on K-12 education was $347.3 billion, according to the Digest of Education Statistics. The federal government contributed $24.5 billion or 7.1 percent. The rest came from state and local governments.
Feds: More control than funding help?
In the 2001-2002 school year, public expenditures rose to $422 billion, with the federal government’s share still around 7 percent.
For that low percent of financial commitment, some see the federal government as exerting too much control over local public schools.
“They are calling more of the shots,” said Phil Riley, superintendent for Madras-area schools. Four of the six schools there qualify for Title I funds, he said. “We will have a national discussion,” Riley said of NCLB. “He’s right about that. I guess that’s a good thing.”
More money is not likely to spring forth from the federal government, which cut taxes again, thus increasing the federal deficit at a time when states are struggling to raise taxes to keep vital services, like schools, functioning.
Boehner boasted that the federal government has increased funding for special education from 5 percent to 18 percent of the total needed to educate mostly disabled children. Riley noted that the federal government’s share is supposed to be 40 percent. Boehner corrected him by saying the government’s share “is up to 40 percent.”
Boehner did say that legislators are trying to get closer to that 40 percent mark in seven years.
When Carpenter, the 2003 Oregon teacher of the year from Redmond’s Hugh Hartman Middle School, asked the congressman to push for more money to expand a literacy program from K-3 all the way up to 8th grade to reach kids in middle school who can’t read.
Boehner said it wasn’t likely to happen, and by eighth grade, “you’ve almost missed your chance.”
Boehner said spending the money on the early grades is where the focus should be, “so you won’t have to deal with it” in the upper grades.
Additional money also was on the mind of Bob Barber, president of COCC, Oregon’s oldest community college, which has slashed $3 million from a $20 million budget.
Boehner said that he and his colleagues were working on legislation to increase access to higher education to middle and low-income students, partially through Pell Grants. Barber said that all the “Pell Grants in the world” wouldn’t mean greater access at COCC, which is filled to capacity and has an extensive waiting list that includes Pell Grant winners. Barber predicted that in five years, the shortage of space on college campuses will be a huge issue.
He also said that during the expansion of colleges from the 1960s to the 1980s, the federal government was a partner with state and local governments to build more classroom space and help fund libraries and science labs.
Boehner said such a scenario is not on the horizon.
“It’s doubtful the federal government would get in the building business,” he said, noting that K-12 would be right behind asking for similar dollars.
“There’s not enough money in the world” to build all the facilities we want, he said.