Governor’s Race: Approaches to education policy

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(Host) Two years after the No Child Left Behind law went into effect it is still hotly debated. How does this play out in this year’s gubernatorial election?

As part of our series on the governor’s race, VPR’s Nina Keck spoke with the two leading candidates as well as teachers and principals to find out.

(Keck) Federal officials say the mission of No Child Left Behind is to make sure every student receives an education; to hold public schools more accountable and to ensure only highly qualified educators are teaching our kids. But how to make that happen in a small, rural state like Vermont is where the dissension comes in.

(Jim Douglas) “I think the goal of No Child Left Behind is laudable.”

(Keck) Republican Governor Jim Douglas supports the plan. But he understands concerns about funding shortfalls. And he says the Department of Education has made the law more flexible to better address the needs of Vermont’s smaller schools.

(Douglas) “I think Secretary Paige and others realize there’s a lot of concern that this be implemented in a fair way. I will continue to urge the president to provide whatever resources needed to implement it. We don’t like unfounded mandates form the government.”

(Keck) But Democrat Peter Clavelle, who calls the law bogus legislation, says it is an unfunded mandate as the government has only provided a portion of what it promised. If test scores at a particular school don’t show adequate yearly improvement, Clavelle says that school can lose federal funding and families can opt to send their children elsewhere. That’s something the democrat strongly opposes.

(Clavelle) “The purpose of No Child Left Behind is to demonstrate that public schools and public school teachers are failing, therefore we aught to allow for a voucher system where a student and his or her parents can take the money and spend it wherever they want it to. I think that’s the direction that No Child Left Behind will take us.”

(Keck) Unlike Clavelle, Governor Douglas favors public school choice and says the state needs to empower parents and put the needs of kids first. As a way around the No Child Left Behind law, some have suggested that Vermont simply opt out of the program and do without federal education dollars. Douglas says that’s not a practical option and Clavelle is not ready to go that far. But Clavelle says if he were governor, he’d more vocally oppose the law and lobby harder to have it overturned. While the candidates view No Child Left Behind from a statewide perspective, teachers all over Vermont are dealing with it in the classroom, one child at a time.

At Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, students fill the halls during midmorning break. In a small conference room just off the main hallway, three teachers share their views of the federal law and talk about what they’d like to see the governor doing about it.

(Cathy Petrics) “The part that frustrates me about No Child Left Behind is it’s multi level.”

(Keck) Cathy Petrics teaches family consumer science. She says most voters don’t realize how complex the law is and how much pressure it’s putting on schools.

(Petrics) “I wonder if we’ve lost sight of are the children benefiting because of the law?”
(Bower) “I think the art of teaching has been taken out a little bit.”

(Keck) Duker Bower teaches Spanish at Otter Valley Union High School. With so much emphasis put on test scores, he says quantity has become more important than quality.

(Bower) “I think that the trend today is to kind of take a tough love approach, that everything can be defined and there’s no room for wiggle room. And I don’t think that’s the nature of teaching at all.”

(Keck) Michael Dwyer, a social studies and English Teacher at Otter Valley is also the 2004 Vermont Teacher of the Year.

(Dwyer) “One of the things that I think is most harmful – particularly as I talk to elementary school teachers – is the climate of fear that this is producing and the anxiety that even second graders are experiencing in the amount of time they will spend getting ready to take a test and what the implications are if those students do not achieve adequate results.”

(Keck) Dwyer argues that the fear factor and the law’s focus on black and white issues such as test scores and teacher qualifications are hurting morale and simply don’t work in many Vermont classrooms. And while he understands the state must comply with federal law, Dwyer says a more involved governor can make a big difference

(Dwyer) “One of the things I would like to see happen is more contact between principals and governors. And perhaps a better use of educators to guide policy decisions that affect Vermont children.”

(Keck) Otter Valley Union High School Principal Dana Cole-Levesque says it’s important for the governor to set a tone of high expectations in public education. But he says the governor will also have to work hard with lawmakers and the president to fight for adequate funding. Both Republican incumbent Jim Douglas and democratic challenger Peter Clavelle promise to do that. The Otter Valley principal says he’s not holding his breath. Since No Child Left Behind is a federal law, and is dependent on federal dollars, he suggests that Vermonters who are concerned about education should scrutinize the candidates for president as closely as they will the candidates for governor.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

(Host) We conclude our series tomorrow, when VPR’s John Dillon takes a close look at the contentious subject of health care.

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