Supervisors Step Up In 'No Child' Fight

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors sided with school officials yesterday in a showdown with the Bush administration over the federal No Child Left Behind law, accusing the U.S. Department of Education of having a "tin ear" in its policy toward testing immigrant students.

Supervisors voted 8 to 1 to endorse the School Board's decision last month to defy a Bush administration directive to give certain students still learning English reading exams that cover the same grade-level material as those taken by their peers who are native speakers. Instead, the school system will continue to use tests it says are better tailored to those learning English as a second language.

Federal officials have threatened to withhold funds from the school system if it does not drop the old tests, which they say are not rigorous enough.

The dispute turned political and a bit personal at the supervisors' meeting yesterday. Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) took exception to a letter from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, published in Sunday's Washington Post, accusing Fairfax and other Virginia school systems of dragging their feet in meeting what she called the "Standards Clause" of the law, requiring children with limited English to meet the same standards as other students.

Spellings called the provision a key tool in efforts to counter what President Bush has described as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

"I speak not just as a policy wonk but as a mom whose daughter attended a Fairfax County school," Spellings wrote. "It's time to remember that yes, Virginia, there is a Standards Clause."

Connolly wasn't amused.

The mandated test "is going to hurt children in a school district that is a high-performing system, except according to Margaret Spellings," he said. "We've been educating children for a long time and doing a pretty credible job in Fairfax County."

Supervisor Lynda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), who has worked as a substitute teacher in Fairfax schools, said the issue is more complex than a matter of immigrant students learning English as a second language. Some children, she said, come from war-ravaged countries and are barely literate.

In those cases, she said, "we are starting from scratch, not with those who have been through Head Start," she said.

Education Department officials wouldn't address the specifics of the board's comments. Chad Colby, a department spokesman, said: "We look forward to working with the commonwealth to resolve this."

The dispute is part of a broad national debate about the requirements of the five-year-old No Child Left Behind law, which is up for congressional renewal this year. Educators agree that schools should be held to high standards, but some question the wisdom of forcing children who haven't mastered English to take exams that might include questions about metaphors or poetic imagery.

Local officials also want Washington to pick up more of the tab for the added expense of meeting the higher standards mandated by the law.

A statement by Connolly and Smyth called No Child Left Behind "a classic unfunded mandate," costing Fairfax taxpayers more than $120 million to date, for which the school system has been reimbursed $16.6 million.

"The tin ear of the U.S. Department of Education with respect to the application of testing on newly-arrived non-English speaking students and the failure of the federal government to fully fund the [the law] raises profound questions about the very validity of this legislation," they wrote.

Supervisor Michael Frey (Sully), one of three Republicans on the nine-member board, was the dissenter. He said he supported the principle of not forcing immigrant students to take tests they are not prepared for but called the School Board's defiance "flamboyant" and said both sides should sit down and talk.

"I don't think personalizing this toward Secretary Spellings is going to help one iota," Frey said.

Staff writer Amit R. Paley contributed to this report.

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