EARLIER THIS MONTH the new education secretary, Margaret Spellings, announced her intention to enforce the administration's 2002 No Child Left Behind Act with greater flexibility. The law, while simple enough in concept -- it requires states to set up accountability systems and then to demonstrate annual improvement in student performance -- has proved extremely complicated to carry out. Mrs. Spellings now proposes that states with strong accountability systems be allowed to waive some of the law's more intrusive provisions.
We hope the flexibility isn't too little, too late. This week the Utah legislature, in a show of states'-rights defiance, passed legislation declaring that the state's accountability system should be given priority over federal laws. Given that Utah is still creating its accountability system, it isn't clear what this means, although Mrs. Spellings has warned that the resolution could mean the loss of federal education funding. Not that this worries everybody: "I wish they'd take the stinking money and go back to Washington," said one Utah legislator. Meanwhile, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, along with a handful of school districts, this week filed a lawsuit charging the federal government with providing too little funding. Connecticut is preparing a funding-related lawsuit, too.
Some of this political turmoil reflects resistance not just to testing but to the implications of the extraordinarily poor school performance that some testing has exposed. In particular, the requirement that states break down their scores by race has shown huge gaps between groups, even in the best school districts. Ideally, this would jolt previously satisfied educators out of their complacency and lead to improvements. But an easier response is to lash out at the law.
Some of the complaints, particularly about funding, also wrongly focus on the federal government, which has provided extra money for testing -- but not for the extra effort it will take to get more students to pass the tests. In fact state governments bear this responsibility -- and responsibility for reducing inequities in public funding, which routinely favors wealthier districts. Why Democrats, advocates for the poor, teachers unions and others, haven't yet realized the extraordinarily progressive, not to say redistributive, possibilities of this law remains a mystery.
But the backlash is also the result of a poorly written law for which the federal government has given poor guidance, as one recent local incident illustrates. Earlier this year, Virginia requested permission to skip tests for kindergarteners and first-graders who don't speak English. The state had previously been told it needed to test them to show English-language improvement, but it asked for the exemption on the grounds that devising written tests for children of that age was proving impossible. The Education Department informed the state that assessments are required but that they needn't be in writing: Classroom work and teacher observation would do. Virginia education officials say they are pleased with the response -- but infuriated that this guidance comes so late, after the state struggled with the problem for three years.
That this story is typical is very strange. Given that education reform remains the Bush administration's most substantive domestic policy achievement, it is odd that it has taken so long to clarify what it believes the law requires. If Mrs. Spellings wants to prevent the federal government's unprecedented interference in state education systems from ending in disaster, her new "flexibility" will have to be accompanied by a serious, line-by- line examination of the law and its practical applications.