Built to Fail

The federal No Child Left Behind law is threatening to wreck public education in Minnesota and elsewhere. That's what it was designed to do.

The upshot is that approximately 90 percent of a school's special education students are still being required to take the same tests and achieve the same level of proficiency and participation as every other subgroup. Otherwise, under NCLB, their school will be placed on the state's failure list.

But here's the real kicker: Under a different federal law, every special education student has an Individual Education Plan, drawn up by the student's parent, guardian, or advocate (and at age 14, the student himself), school officials, and relevant medical personnel. Collectively, they strive to create the best learning environment for the student by assessing his or her physical and intellectual capabilities, establishing specific goals and benchmarks, and determining what equipment and support staff are needed to help the student achieve them. When the law was passed in 1974, the feds pledged to pay 40 percent of these special education costs. Right now, in the wake of a significant boost in funding by the Bush administration, the federal share of the bill is higher than ever before: 19 percent, or less than half of what the schools were promised 30 years ago. If Washington were ever to live up to its original commitment, Minnesota schools would receive a whopping increase of nearly $250 million for special education every year. Instead, Washington, under NCLB, is penalizing those same underfunded schools for leaving special education students behind.

The NCLB guidelines on limited English proficiency students are less egregious but still unreasonable. By definition, those in the LEP subgroup are unlikely to score well on reading tests. At first, NCLB would have counted the test scores of LEP students who had just arrived in the country and bumped others out of the subgroup as soon as they passed the language proficiency assessment, which is less challenging to immigrants than the reading tests. In other words, NCLB would have required proficiency in reading English from students who had proven they were not proficient in speaking or understanding English.

Last November, at the behest of Yecke, Paige's department allowed Minnesota to exempt the test results of immigrants who had been in the state for less than a year, and allowed others to stay in the LEP subgroup for two years after passing the language assessment. Last month, again in response to vociferous criticism of the LEP guidelines, he extended Minnesota's relaxed provisions to all 50 states, a gesture that Paige's department estimates will reduce the number of failing schools by 20 percent.

But research has demonstrated that it can take anywhere from four to 11 years for most LEP students to master English. Even when LEP students do master English, they're at best on a merely equal footing with students who were raised speaking the language, and for whom the reading test was ostensibly designed. Twenty-six percent of students in the Minneapolis Public Schools are LEP; in St. Paul the figure is approximately one in three. And 77 different languages are spoken by students in the Osseo school district. It remains highly probable that many schools in these districts--which also contain a significant percentage of special education and free and reduced lunch students--will be labeled as failing and eventually have to be restructured because of NCLB.


Preach pie-in-the-sky perfection

For those schools lucky enough not to have enrolled a measurable amount of students in at-risk subgroups, or through Herculean effort somehow manage to otherwise avoid being put on the list of failing systems, NCLB simply cranks up its testing standards. The required proficiency rates for math and reading will inexorably climb over the next decade until, in 2014, we arrive at the theoretical endgame, where the only options are failure and perfection.

That's right: Every student in every subgroup must be proficient on every assessment in order for schools and districts to be in compliance with NCLB.

No Child Left Behind. It's the sort of grand vision that inspires lofty political rhetoric. At a recent appearance with Secretary Paige at a school in St. Paul, Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman likened the struggle to have every child succeed under NCLB to the struggle for racial integration in Alabama in the '60s. It was a theme that echoed a speech given by Paige a few months earlier, when he said, "It's the duty of our nation to teach every child well, not just some of them. Yet in the greatest, most prosperous nation in the world, we had created two education systems--separate and unequal--that found it perfectly acceptable to teach only some students well while the rest--mostly minority and low-income--floundered and flunked out."

Last year, Yecke added her voice to the chorus. "If we are going to start setting public policy goals in education based on the assumption that we expect some kids to fail, I think we have a responsibility to tell parents and the public which kids we are planning on leaving out of the picture. I'm not prepared to do that."

As part of its commitment to NCLB for fiscal year 2004, Congress authorized $18.5 billion in federal Title I funds, specifically designed to assist the impoverished students Paige invoked in his speech. But Paige's boss, President Bush, requested just $12.3 billion of that money in his budget. Over the past three years, in this greatest and most prosperous nation in the world, Bush has left more than $13 billion in authorized Title I money on the table.

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