U.S. SENATE CAMPAIGN
Allen, Webb Stake Out Positions on 'No Child'
Thursday, October 26, 2006
In a state skeptical of federal intrusion in local school affairs, Virginia Sen. George Allen and challenger James Webb each say they support the goals of No Child Left Behind but quarrel with how the federal law has played out.
The Democratic challenger says schools need more federal funding to fulfill mandates to test students and narrow achievement gaps. The Republican incumbent, who voted for the landmark legislation five years ago, now argues that states need more flexibility in how they grade schools. But neither candidate supports an outright repeal of the law.
Whoever wins Nov. 7 will have a vote when Congress debates whether to renew the controversial law, which aims to push students in a range of grades to attain near-universal proficiency in reading and math by 2014. The law requires testing for all students from grades 3 through 8 and once during high school, and it requires schools to show that students in racial, ethnic and other groups are making adequate progress. Schools that fall short can face sanctions up to the threat of state intervention.
As Virginia governor in the mid-1990s, Allen was chief architect of the school accountability program that measures progress using the Standards of Learning tests. Since voting for No Child Left Behind, he has become critical of the federal initiative. State officials in that time have also complained about aspects of the law.
In a speech at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville this month, Allen told students that the federal law is "forcing Virginia schools to dumb down our curriculum." He later said that whereas the federal law focuses on reading and math, Virginia's testing system is "more comprehensive" and includes science and social studies.
Allen has proposed to amend the law by allowing states that have accountability programs to be granted waivers from certain federal requirements. His bill also would require states to expand testing to include U.S. history and civics.
In an interview this month with Washington Post reporters and editors, Webb said that the "intentions" of the No Child law are good but that Washington has not provided enough money. Congressional Democrats charge that the Bush administration and Republican-led Congress have delivered tens of billions of dollars less than the law authorized in education aid.
"You have federal requirements that are being put into place without the full amount of funding so that local jurisdictions are having to make up the difference, which is taking money away from other things they could be doing," Webb said. He also said the law places too much focus on teaching "toward standards" instead of teaching students to "think and adapt."
Kristian Denny Todd, a spokeswoman for Webb, said he hasn't decided whether he would vote to renew the law. "In terms of a vote for reauthorization," she said, "he's going to have to take a look at it and make sure the funds are dedicated."
The law has popped up as a campaign issue in various states. In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican candidate for Senate, alluded to No Child Left Behind in a television advertisement that said his party "built a system that teaches to a test." Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Steele's Democratic opponent, voted for the law in the House in 2001 but now -- like Webb -- says it has been underfunded.
Analysts said education does not appear to be a driving issue in a Virginia Senate race dominated by debate over taxes, the war in Iraq and questions of character.
"The differences between the candidates appear quite subtle to most voters and not substantial enough to make any real difference except perhaps with a small number of committed educational professionals," said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.