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It's Time to Implement School Reform Law, U.S. Official Says

November 27, 2002|Stephanie Banchero | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A top official with the U.S. Department of Education turned up the heat on public schools Tuesday, saying it's time to stop making excuses and start implementing the new federal law that lets children escape bad schools while giving them better teachers.

Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok said too many states are finding bureaucratic ways around the sweeping No Child Left Behind Act instead of developing creative means to make it work. He said the department will step up its efforts to ensure that school officials meet the law's requirements. He did not offer specifics.

"Watch us, we are going to get pretty aggressive," Hickok said in a teleconference.

Hickok spoke after releasing the final regulations for the new education bill. The law mandates annual testing of children from third through eighth grades, insists that all classroom instructors be certified for the subjects or grades they teach, and sets a 12-year timetable for closing the achievement gaps between minority and white children as well as poor and more affluent students. It also includes more federal education spending, which means $240 million more for Illinois.

The linchpin of the law is its accountability measure, which demands that districts allow students to transfer from schools where large numbers of students fail standardized tests and provide tutoring for those who remain.

Since the act's passage in January, some school officials have gotten around it, saying too little space in good schools and too few qualified teachers hinder implementation.

In Illinois, more than 160,000 children attend low-performing schools and, according to the law, should have been able to move to better ones. But most were not offered an opportunity to transfer. In Chicago, only 29,000 of the 124,000 eligible students got the chance to move.

The story was much the same in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

"We recognize that this is a considerable challenge and we are willing to work with state and local districts," Hickok said. "But the idea that choice should be limited by a lack of capacity runs counter to the intent of this law."

Hickok challenged school officials to come up with inventive solutions, such as developing "cyber" schools.

A spokesman with the community group ACORN praised Hickok's comments. ACORN released a study earlier this month charging that states are ignoring the law.

"We welcome increased vigilance on enforcement, but the federal government also has to understand that this is a question of resources," said Doug Timmer with the Chicago ACORN office. "The real crux is that in some places, such as Chicago, the law is so far from the current reality that it will take a huge infusion of resources to make it work."

Kati Haycock of Education Trust also praised the department's firm stance. "However, tougher accountability by itself does not create higher achievement," said Haycock, who heads the education research organization. "We worry about the lack of focus on teacher quality and public reporting."

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