The debate over President Bush's landmark education program, No Child Left Behind, that has been raging across the country for more than a year has ended up where so many policy fights land these days -- in court.
The state of Connecticut sued Education Secretary Margaret Spellings last week, alleging that she had illegally imposed more than $50 million in unfunded costs on the state -- and many more millions on local communities -- with the testing requirements in NCLB. The lawsuit demands that she either relax the requirement for annual tests in the third through eighth grades or cough up the extra money the state says that they are costing.
Spellings, who helped design the law as a first-term Bush White House adviser, has refused repeated pleas from Connecticut to be allowed to continue its existing program of alternate-year testing. In an interview, she referred to annual testing as "the linchpin" of NCLB, adding that, "as a parent and a policymaker, I want to know how my kids are doing every single year."
Connecticut is the first state to take the issue into court, but several local districts and the National Education Association have filed their own challenges. Complaints about NCLB's impact on local schools and their budgets have been heard in legislatures across the land.
The fight crosses party lines. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who filed the lawsuit against Spellings, is a Democrat, but his action was endorsed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who said, "We in Connecticut do a lot of testing already, far more than most other states. Our taxpayers are sagging under the crushing costs of local education. What we don't need is a new laundry list of things to do -- with no new money to do them."
In response, the Education Department argues that NCLB is not an unfunded mandate, that it is providing Connecticut with adequate funds for the tests and that state participation in the program is voluntary. It also challenges Connecticut's record in overcoming disparities within its student population.
This dispute is bound to continue, but however it is resolved, it will not address the larger issues in education. A better perspective on those questions was provided last week in a report from two Washington-based liberal think tanks titled "Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer: A Progressive Education Agenda for a Stronger Nation."
A task force created by the Center for American Progress and the Institute for America's Future scoured the country looking for programs that work and that could be expanded to national scale -- if the political will and resources were present.
The recommendations put the current dispute over NCLB into proper perspective as a fight over marginalia. The report, in broad outline, calls for:
* Lengthening the school year beyond the standard 180 days and reducing summer vacation time, when many students forget what they have just learned.
* Extending the school day by incorporating meaningful after-school programs.
* Providing preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds and all-day kindergartens.
* Strengthening the high-school curriculum to ensure that graduates are ready for college or advanced technical training, and bridging the gap between 12th grade and further education.
* Drafting voluntary national standards for all levels of classes, a needed improvement on current widely varying state-by-state standards.
* Improving student assessments beyond the current tests and ensuring assistance to schools and students who are lagging.
* Upgrading teacher training and providing pay incentives for classroom performance and rewards for top teachers assigned to struggling schools.
* Building more community schools, where social services for parents are located in the same building as classrooms and families are mobilized to help students succeed.
None of these ideas is new; all have been tested in communities with positive results. But now they are only scattered examples.
Making them available everywhere will not be cheap. The report calls for an additional federal investment of $325 billion over 10 years, starting with $7 billion the first year and steadily increasing. That is a lot of money, but it would only boost the education portion of the federal budget from today's 3 percent to 41/2 percent.
In some respects, the report echoes the warnings of "A Nation at Risk," the 1983 call for radical improvement in America's schools. Asked what might make the message resonate more clearly now, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, one of the three co-chairmen of the task force, said, "When 'Nation at Risk' came out, China and India were not what they are now" -- emerging economic powerhouses whose rapid education strides pose a challenge to the prosperity of all Americans.
In that perspective, the arguments over NCLB are really almost irrelevant. We need to be thinking big.