Bush stands firm on reforms

17th January 2003 at 00:00

A year ago the president dramatically increased parents' power. It has been a controversial anniversary, reports Stephen Phillips

PRESIDENT Bush was all smiles last week, marking the first anniversary of his flagship school reform, the No Child Left Behind Act, with a lavish White House reception.

The law, holding schools to a strict test-based accountability regime, is billed by Bush as the "cornerstone" of his domestic policy.

The initiative singles out flagging schools for extra aid to help them pull their socks up. But its chief departure is school choice: handing parents the power to withdraw their children from such schools and enrol them at higher-performing ones. Under-performing schools must pay the transport costs for pupil transfers.

US schools trail behind those in other Western nations in academic rankings. There is also a disturbing achievement gulf between overwhelmingly white, affluent, suburban students and their poorer, inner-city, predominantly black or Hispanic peers.

Complicating matters, America has 50 school jurisdictions, one for each state, and the legislation's emphasis on naming and shaming laggards has crystallised glaring inequities. Michigan, with America's most exacting benchmarks, failed 1,513 of its schools, for instance, while Arkansas faulted none. No one believes that schools in rural backwater Arkansas have a clean bill of health, but it is academically-rigorous Michigan that must foot the bill for remedial measures at below-par schools.

Some states are now suspected of relaxing standards to reduce their financial exposure to the legislation, prompting US education secretary Rod Paige to vow to root out those cheating the system.

Paige is brooking no excuses for not complying with the Act. Last month, he declared that lack of space to accommodate pupils from struggling schools at better ones was no excuse.

With 8,652 sub-standard schools identified, the number of eligible pupils runs into millions.

"I have no idea how states are going to handle this," lamented Mark Davison, director of the University of Minnesota's Office of Educational Accountability. Minnesota officials are potentially looking at the majority of the state's schools being dragged down by one or two exam results and being stigmatised as failures, Davison said.

Meanwhile, some educationists contend that high-stakes testing encourages teaching of the test rather than a rounded curriculum.

President Bush appears unfazed by the chorus of dismay. He might be more concerned by the apparent unravelling of bipartisan support for the legislation, though. Last week, 44 Democratic senators accused him of reneging on funding commitments by proposing a $1.4 billion (pound;0.9bn) rise in education spending instead of the $7.7bn (pound;4.8bn) increase they sought. "America's (state) schools cannot overcome the enormous obstacles they face on the cheap," they wrote.

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