'No Child' Loopholes Decried

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

Should suburban schools that barely miss federal learning targets be allowed to escape penalties, while inner-city schools that never even hit the dart board are required to give free tutoring and let students transfer to better schools?

That question is at the heart of an emerging argument in Washington over how to improve the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Influential House Democrats and Republicans have circulated a draft proposal that would take many schools off the hook if they raise achievement for most students but miss the mark for a few.

Yesterday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pushed back hard against that approach. "To move from reasonable accommodations to big loopholes would be a huge mistake," she said.

In a speech to the Business Coalition for Student Achievement, which supports the federal law, Spellings said she is willing to consider proposals to allow states to use more than just annual tests in reading and math to rate schools and to treat differently schools that fall only slightly short of targets. But she said she is not willing to bend if the changes mean struggling students won't get the extra help they need.

Under current law, which requires reading and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school, schools must show annual progress for all groups of students toward a goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. This year, 68 Fairfax County schools missed at least some target scores, falling short of adequate progress, more than double the county's previous total.

The law also has shined a spotlight on schools that have missed targets in other jurisdictions, including the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Schools that miss targets year after year and receive certain federal education funds face progressively steeper sanctions.

Spellings' speech was the Bush administration's sharpest response to efforts in Congress to placate many schools, often those in nice neighborhoods with powerful parents who think the federal targets are too hard on their children.

"I'm counting on you to stand up against policies that say some kids just can't learn or that some kids count more than others or that if some kids are improving, its okay to let others fall behind," Spellings told members of the coalition of business, education, community and civil rights groups.

The targets of her remarks were sitting placidly 10 feet to her left: Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), who had circulated the proposals. The Democratic chairman and senior Republican on the House education committee indicated afterward that her remarks were part of a long conversation. They had earlier thanked Spellings for her helping seek improvements, and she called them "mighty warriors" in the fight for better schools.

At the moment, the debate seems to be about exactly how many children would be affected by the suggested changes. Spellings said her staff had calculated that sparing more schools the tutoring and transfer requirements would mean "roughly 250,000 fewer children will get tutoring." She said the change would result in a 75 percent reduction in the number of Utah schools and a one-third reduction of Texas schools subject to the tutoring and transfer requirements.

Miller said that he did not accept those numbers and that he would have to investigate the matter further. He has scheduled hearings on changes in the law this month and called for a final version to be passed by the House before October.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company