By Maria Glod and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Virginia Sens. John W. Warner and James Webb introduced legislation yesterday to protect the state's schools from Bush administration threats to withhold millions of dollars in aid in a clash over federal testing rules.
The bipartisan measure addresses a controversy that has swelled in Virginia over testing requirements for students with limited English skills.
School systems in Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties have begun in recent months to push back against what they call unrealistic mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind law. They plan to defy a federal directive to give thousands of students who are beginning to learn English reading tests that cover the same grade-level material as exams taken by students who are native speakers.
Federal education officials have said state school systems stand to lose millions in funding, with $17 million at risk in Fairfax alone, if they refuse to comply. The federal officials say many other states, including Maryland, are following a mandate meant to ensure that immigrant students and others who speak limited English do not fall too far behind.
The Warner-Webb legislation would give Virginia and other states in a similar situation a one-year reprieve from federal sanctions to give local educators time to develop tests that meet federal standards. Democratic Reps. James P. Moran Jr. and Rick Boucher and Republican Reps. Robert W. Goodlatte, Thomas M. Davis III and Jo Ann S. Davis introduced an identical bill in the House. All are from Virginia, and all voted for the law in 2001. Webb (D) entered the Senate this year.
"While I firmly believe that the goals behind [No Child Left Behind] are solid, there have been some challenges with the regulatory implementation of this new law, particularly in Virginia," Warner (R), who also voted for the law, said in a statement. "While, at this moment, I do not cast blame for how we came to this impasse, the simple fact is that it could result in a number of schools in Virginia being sanctioned under the federal law -- not because our schools are underperforming, but rather as a consequence of bureaucracy."
Katherine McLane, an Education Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the legislation. But she said it is important to test all students, including English-learners. "Assessing their progress is the best way of making sure they get the education they deserve and their parents expect."
The prospects for the measure are unclear. The legislation comes amid growing debate over No Child Left Behind as Congress considers renewal of the five-year-old law. Last week, more than 50 Republicans endorsed measures that would allow states to opt out of mandates.
The Warner-Webb bill would apply to any state in which a test won federal approval for the 2005-06 school year but was rejected for this school year.
In Virginia, students with the lowest levels of English proficiency in past years have taken a reading test that measured progress in learning the language. In June, federal officials said those students must be tested on grade-level reading content, which can include comprehension of a poem or concepts such as similes or metaphors.
Under the legislation, governors would be required to certify that their states do not have time to train teachers on a new test and that alternatives then available are "not in the best interest of the public school system and the children the system serves."