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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Failing No Child act must be revamped

By Rep. Roy Takumi

I couldn't agree more with the recent commentaries on the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act (Honolulu Advertiser, May 8). No Child has been touted as the most significant federal education reform in decades and overwhelmingly passed Congress; after all, who can disagree with its assertion that all children can learn?

But like many bills that have laudable goals, it is flawed in many ways. One wonders how many of those in Congress and the Bush administration actually read all 1,425 pages of the bill. It is a one-size-fits-all approach to student achievement that relies far too much on high-stakes testing to measure progress.

Worse, No Child is woefully underfunded. The funding in fiscal year 2005 fell $9.8 billion short of the act's authorized level. President Bush's fiscal year 2006 is $12 billion short. According to a study done for the Hawai'i state Department of Education last year, it costs $30 million a year just for compliance without considering the additional costs of bringing students up to academic targets or to attract "highly qualified" teachers as required by the law.

No Child totally ignores the fact that each state designs its own standards as to what is considered proficient. States such as Hawai'i are punished if their standards are high. According to a recent study by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Hawai'i's tests are among the toughest in the country, but this has led to the ludicrous situation where we have a higher number of failing schools compared to states with low standards. And this is happening all over the country.

For example, in Florida, 827 schools rated "A" by the state failed to meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), the benchmark established by No Child. Imagine being a parent of a child in one of those schools being congratulated by Gov. Jeb Bush, while at the same time getting a notice from the Bush administration saying that this same school is failing.

Indeed, if left as is, No Child will only serve to ensure that the majority of schools will fail. A California Department of Education study concluded that by 2014 (when No Child requires that 100 percent of students meet AYP), 99 percent of schools will be failing. Minnesota's legislative auditor concluded that 80 percent to 99 percent of their schools will fail. In Illinois, it's 95 percent to 99 percent; in Connecticut, a state known for its excellent public school system, it's 93 percent.

This should not be seen as a partisan issue. The nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures issued a report this past February that concluded, "States that were once pioneers are now captives of a one-size-fits-all educational accountability system." As a result, even Republican-dominated states such as Texas and Utah are rebelling against the act. Twenty-one states (including Hawai'i) introduced resolutions and bills calling for amendments to the law.

So what do we do? Opting out of No Child as a few school districts have done is not a solution since by doing so, Hawai'i's schools would lose more than $340 million in federal funding, including Title I funds that are used for the neediest of our students. I would propose changes on two levels:

• The law must be amended to make it fairer and more effective. In general, the focus must move away from draconian sanctions to holding states accountable for making systemic changes that improve student achievement. These would include relying more upon multiple indicators of progress and less upon high-stakes testing.

• We must insist on adequate funding. No doubt we must also insist on accountability, but it is shortsighted to do so if our educational programs are substandard, inadequate or inequitable due to lack of funds. A recent study by Grand Thornton LLP and professor David Conley at the University of Oregon concluded that an additional $278 million a year, an increase of 17 percent, is necessary to provide an adequate education for our students.

I firmly believe that all of us want our schools to succeed in enabling all of our students to reach their full potential. I also firmly believe effective, timely and well-rooted change does not happen from a top-down approach. It happens by nurturing the seeds of leadership and motivation that already exist within each school. It happens by empowering each school and all of its stakeholders to experiment, to innovate and to respond in ways that truly reflect their desires and dreams for their students. Let's move away from what's politically expedient and do what is right for our children, our society and ourselves.

Rep. Roy Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City, Palisades), is chairman of the House Education Committee and was one of the sponsors of Act 51, the Reinventing Education Act of 2004. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.