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Thursday, January 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
'No Child Left Behind' should be more than a slogan

By Howard Dean
Special to The Times

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This week, President Bush celebrated the second anniversary of the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. I, on the other hand, see little cause for celebration.

While the ideals espoused in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are admirable, the realities of the Bush plan are not. NCLB imposes rigid and expensive mandates on public schools. It judges adequate yearly progress using a one-size-fits-all formula, a measure that gives schools an incentive to lower testing standards in order to meet federal requirements and, sadly, to push out students that may bring down a school's average score. Under these new standards, 26,000 of America's 93,000 schools "failed" to make adequate yearly progress in 2003 and many are not receiving the additional support they need to improve.

This federal takeover of public education is the last thing we need. I never understood why Washington politicians think they can design a cookie-cutter policy that will work for all local schools. Parents, teachers, and school boards need resources and support, not Draconian measures that set them up for failure.

But perhaps worst of all, the president and Congress have consistently underfunded the NCLB budget. The president's own 2004 budget proposal would underfund the act to the tune of $9 billion, leaving local communities — many of which are already facing severe budget gaps — to make up the difference. It is absolutely unconscionable for the president to demand that states pay for federally required programs without properly funding them.

Since NCLB passed, we have been hearing horror stories from states desperately looking for money to meet requirements. Schools in Edmonds, Wash., laid off 193 teachers and staff, while districts across the state of Washington have started charging thousands of dollars to enroll children in kindergarten.

Most communities will likely meet NCLB budget shortfalls by raising property taxes, local government's usual source of education funding. Washington's property taxes increased nearly 10 percent from 2001 to 2003. And many other states have followed suit since Bush took office.

Increased property taxes and costs for services are only part of the burden that I refer to as the "Bush Tax." While the president has insisted on massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the rest of us are stuck paying for his misplaced priorities.

While he can find over $150 billion for his ill-advised war in Iraq, Washington parents are wondering how they will afford the 7-percent jump in tuition at Washington's public universities this year. While he pushed through Medicare legislation that will increase pharmaceutical company profits by $139 billion over the next eight years, half a million children in the United States have lost health-insurance coverage. Thanks to President Bush's disastrous fiscal policies, we are paying more and getting less — the "Bush Tax."

This week, the president traveled to St. Louis to give a speech celebrating the anniversary of NCLB. While there, he raised approximately $2.5 million for a primary in which he faces no opponent. Ironically, a nearby school district is facing a vote in February on whether to raise property taxes by almost $2.5 million in order to put a dent in an education budget shortfall of nearly $5 million. This is a clear example that the president's priorities are all wrong: Rather than working for the people's interests, he caters to the special interests that fund his campaigns.

It doesn't have to be this way.

We can reform NCLB so that it invests in schools and assists students in meeting high standards judged by more than just standardized tests. We can make sure that the federal government fulfills its responsibility to give every child a chance to succeed, especially in our poorest schools, so that No Child Left Behind becomes more than just a campaign slogan.

But we will not be able to achieve this change without first changing the occupant of the White House. We will achieve these goals when Americans across the nation re-engage in the political process and reclaim their democracy. Because when the people unite, all the special interests in Washington won't be able to stop us from taking our country back.

Dr. Howard Dean is former governor of Vermont and Democratic candidate for president. Dean's commentary was submitted through his campaign organization.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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