PRESIDENT BUSH'S No Child Left Behind legislation was an aggressive federal intervention into a traditionally state and local matter. We support the principle of that law, which requires school systems to use testing and other assessments to determine whether children are reading and doing math at grade level. The law requires systems to publicly disclose this information and forces them to provide tutoring, or another school, for children in "failing" schools. It holds school districts accountable for everyone, including the non-English-speaking and minority children whose failures have often been ignored.
The law has been bitterly criticized because some of its requirements were nonsensical or unrealistic and because it has supposedly been unfunded. The former criticism has merit: Some wrinkles have been smoothed out, and we hope that others will be gone in time. The latter does not: Funding for education has increased under the Bush administration, and in any case money isn't the main obstacle to the law's success. Far more important is what happens next: Will schools, presented for the first time with clear assessments, begin to improve? If they do not, will students be offered alternatives? Mr. Bush has a tendency to dodge these questions. He often seems to paint No Child Left Behind as a silver bullet, using pat phrases ("our reforms insist on high standards because we know every child can learn") that make it sound as if testing is the solution, not the better teaching and preparation for children that lead to better test scores. But testing alone will not solve the problem. Where, for example, are children in the District supposed to go if their schools are failing? To other failing schools? We have not heard anyone in the administration explain what will happen next. We worry that in a second term the president might think that education has already been "dealt with" and ignore the next, critical stage of reform.
As a senator, Democratic nominee John F. Kerry has long been interested in greater school accountability -- an interest that led him, like many other Democrats, to vote for No Child Left Behind. Since then, however, he's shown a tendency to talk as if lack of money is the only thing wrong with the law, and as if he's not so sure about testing after all. He has proposed to spend $30 billion from repealed tax cuts (if he can find that much) on teacher salaries and training. But while his policy papers are filled with references to "rigorous tests for new teachers" and rules that would allow schools to replace poor teachers, he has said little about it on the stump. Sometimes he sounds as if he would roll back some No Child rules, as when he says testing is "punitive," or worries aloud that tests alone can't measure progress. That may be, but in a public school landscape as uneven as this nation's, testing is the only way to ensure that some standards are being met. We'd feel better about Mr. Bush if he were clearer about what he is going to do, once accountability becomes standard practice. We'd feel better about Mr. Kerry if he would make clear that accountability is here to stay.
This is one in a series of editorials comparing the records and programs of the presidential candidates on important issues. Others can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/opinion.