President Bush yesterday used the anniversary of the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act to rebut criticism that the far-reaching federal education law is being implemented and funded by his administration in a way that will lead more schools to failure than to success.
Flanked by first lady Laura Bush, Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige and eight public school principals from around the country during a ceremony in the White House East Room, Bush defended the law, saying it is adequately funded and will prompt widespread improvement in the nation's public schools.
"This issue is not just about money," Bush said. "We must spend money more wisely. . . . And we must make sure we continue to insist upon results for the money we spend."
Bush's remarks were intended to counteract increasing criticism from congressional Democrats and others who say they agree with the law's goals but believe the administration has not committed enough money to ensure its success. Also, some state education leaders say the regulations governing the law are needlessly rigid and will result in identifying many good schools as failing.
"Democrats worked in good faith with the White House to pass this legislation, but one full year later President Bush still hasn't backed it with the effort necessary to make it work," said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo)., former Democratic House leader. "Our best efforts to improve education are meaningless if we're unwilling to pay to make those vital improvements."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) released a joint letter to Paige yesterday, calling for increased funding for the landmark education bill. More than 40 Democrats signed a similar letter sent to Bush on Tuesday. "The success of these vital reforms is at a crossroads," said the letter to Paige. "The administration has the opportunity to take the road to success by fully funding the reforms outlined in the law, and to reconsider its regulations that contradict the plain language of the law."
Bush administration officials, however, say they have provided enough money to make the law work. They say that federal education funding -- which accounts for about 8 percent of the nation's overall education spending -- has increased 49 percent over the past two years.
" I guess for some people . . . no amount of spending is enough," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters. "But if spending alone were the answer to education's problems, our educational system would have been made perfect a long time ago. The issue is how to bring reforms to the system, change the focus on accountability and standards, and helping states so they can have testing programs in place that are realistic, that push students and schools upward. And that's exactly what the No Child Left Behind Act does."
The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to administer standardized reading and math tests to students each year in grades 3 through 8. Schools must make steady progress toward raising achievement levels on the exams, with all students required to reach state-defined proficiency levels by 2014.
Schools deemed failing for two consecutive years must begin student transfers to better schools -- even to those filled to capacity -- and use public money to hire private firms to tutor students. If a school continues to be designated as failing, it must replace its principal and teachers or reopen as a charter school.
Educational measurement experts and some state officials have complained that the administration's strict interpretation of the law -- coupled with the normal, year-to-year fluctuations in standardized test scores -- will almost certainly result in too many schools being deemed failing, even when they are doing well by most measures.
Bush said yesterday that five states -- Massachusetts, Ohio, Colorado, Indiana and New York -- have submitted plans for assessing the quality of their schools, and that the plans have been approved by the U.S. Education Department. Administration officials offered those plans as evidence that the law is workable.
"If funding were such an issue, then some of the leaders who are critical of the funding level have to explain why states that they represent, for example, are already moving forward and complying," Fleischer said, in an apparent jab at Kennedy.
"We not only need to make sure the money is there, but we've got to make sure the attitude changes," Bush said. "And the accountability systems within the No Child Left Behind Act insist that we have an attitude change in America."