Not Getting Left Behind

Sunday, February 5, 2006

IT'S BEEN a long time in coming, but at least a few of President Bush's opponents are beginning to see the potential of his No Child Left Behind legislation. Thanks to the law, which requires states to assess children annually and to break down the results by minority group and income level, it has for the first time become possible to track which schools are failing which students. More important, the law also requires states to turn schools around and help them succeed.

True, neither the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law nor the NAACP, two of the organizations that are beginning, cautiously, to see the possibilities of the law, is exactly advertising its support. But last week, the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP did quietly come down on the side of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who is being sued by Connecticut over some of the act's provisions. The state's politicians are angered by Ms. Spellings's refusal to waive some of the No Child law's requirements -- specifically, the state wants to test its children every other year, instead of every year -- and they contend that the law doesn't provide the necessary funding to allow states to meet its requirements.

Civil rights lawyers point out that this line of argument could enable states not to comply with other laws, among them the Civil Rights Act, which was also "unfunded." But John Brittain, chief counsel to the Lawyers' Committee, goes further, noting that Connecticut, although the wealthiest state in the country, also has the biggest achievement gap between white and minority students. "Children deserve those annual assessments," he says, so that they can be given the help they need. In terms of its goals and intent, if not its implementation, he also calls No Child Left Behind potentially the "greatest civil rights education statute that has ever been passed."

These are brave statements: Not all civil rights advocates will be pleased to see the Connecticut NAACP joining a lawsuit on the same side as the Bush administration. They may also be too radical for much of the Democratic Party. In his response to the State of the Union speech last week, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) repeated his party's line, claiming the act is "wreaking havoc on local school districts." The NAACP needs to drag its friends around to its point of view. By helping to fine-tune and implement the law instead of constantly running it down, Democratic politicians, child welfare advocates and teachers unions could help fix broken school systems as well. A profile of once-disastrous, now-successful Maury Elementary School in Alexandria by The Post's Jay Mathews last week showed what can be achieved if teachers and administrators use the law well. It's an odd idea, getting the Democrats to embrace a Republican project. But if they are brave enough to do it, thousands of inner-city children will be better off.

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