Real Bipartisanship – the ESEA

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If you’re at all in doubt that the education law recently signed by the president is a true work of bipartisanship in the best sense of that word, you need to look no further than the following story:

According to a teachers’ union watchdog, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy lobbied the National Education Association on behalf of the new bill, asking them to back off opposing it. Sen. Kennedy was named an “NEA Friend of Education” two years ago, and usually supports their agenda. If he were playing partisan politics, he would have sat on his hands and let the NEA blast away at a pet project of a Republican president.

The bill passed with overwhelming support, yet critics still harp on its flaws. I’m not here to argue that there aren’t flaws. Any law has them. But the new law has some meaningful strong points.

Here are a couple that I like:

The new law will allow taxpayers, parents and students to get a more accurate picture of their schools. It will do this by requiring schools to test students in math and reading in grades three through eight starting in 2005. This is a significant change from the old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was reauthorized by President Clinton in 1994. That old law only required statewide testing once during elementary grades, once during middle grades, and once in high school.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think testing is the be-all and end-all of the education quality picture. But it does provide an important window on what goes on in our schools and whether feel-good rhetoric matches up with reality. Testing also serves the critical purpose of alerting us to when things have gone very, very wrong. Bad test results in math or reading can send up important red flags that tell us changes have to be made and made fast.

Even though the law requires these tests, it does give states flexibility in choosing them. It does not specify, except in the case of the National Assessment, what the tests should be. Vermont, therefore, could continue with its current assessment program, just expanding it to other grades. Or, it could require other tests, such as the four norm-referenced ones on the market, which are used in most Vermont schools today anyway.

Another feature of the law that I find promising is its emphasis on reading skills. A section of the law called Reading First will authorize 900 million dollars to be spent in this year alone to help states set up “scientific, research-based” reading programs. Since phonics and phonemic awareness are the only “scientific, research-based” programs showing consistent reading progress, that’s a boost for a back-to-basics approach many parents have been yearning for.

In a subtler way, it’s a boost for special education. Some experts argue that an estimated 85 percent of special education students suffer deficits in reading. Since an estimated 20 percent of children cannot learn to read properly without phonics and phonemic awareness, this new law could eventually help reduce the numbers of kids in special education programs because of reading problems.

As a supporter of vouchers, I was naturally disappointed and skeptical when I heard of the compromises being made to the president’s original education vision. Now that I know the fuller story, I have to say that I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Senator Kennedy on this one. It might not be perfect, but this education bill is still pretty darn good.

This is Libby Sternberg in Rutland.

–Libby Sternberg is a freelance writer, former Chair of the Rutland County Republican Party, and is active in education issues.

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