updated 2/23/2005 7:01:17 PM ET 2005-02-24T00:01:17

State lawmakers issued a scathing rebuke of President Bush’s education overhaul on Wednesday, calling it a coercive, unconstitutional act that sets an unreachable goal of getting every child up to par in reading and math.

The National Conference of State Legislatures wants changes in the fundamental parts of the No Child Left Behind Act: how student progress is measured, how schools are punished if they fall short and who decides when the rules are waived for struggling districts. Overall, the proposal would give states significantly more power to administer the law.

As a bipartisan statement from all 50 legislatures, the report is significant for its sweep and tone, underscoring tensions over which level of government has final say over education. Schools are traditionally a state matter, but the federal role has grown much more aggressive as Bush and Congress have ordered higher achievement among all students.

Unintended consequences
The new report contends the law leads to unintended consequences and that the federal government is indifferent to them — the lowering of academic standards, increasing segregation in school, and the driving away of top teachers from needy schools. It claims the government is also violating the Constitution by coercing state compliance.

Republican state Sen. Steve Saland of New York, co-chairman of the task force that reviewed the law, compared it to a “weed” that has stifled state innovation. Co-chairman Steve Kelley, a Democratic state senator from Minnesota, said the federal government is right to target the achievement gap among poor and minorities but wrong to meddle with the states.

Still, at a news conference in Washington, leaders from the state group also tried to send a cooperative message. They spoke of working with Congress, the White House and new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to get legislative changes and more state flexibility. So far, Bush and Congress have shown little interest in scaling back the law.

“This is a new report, there is a new secretary, and we think this is a real opportunity,” said NCSL President John Hurson, a Democratic state lawmaker from Maryland.

At the Education Department, Ray Simon, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said the agency will keep working with states to address their concerns.

Admirable, but unattainable
However, Simon added: “The report could be interpreted as wanting to reverse the progress we’ve made. President Bush, Secretary Spellings and the team at the Department of Education believe every child can learn. ... No Child Left Behind is bringing new hope and new opportunity to families throughout America, and we will not reverse course.”

State leaders say the law’s goal of getting 100 percent of children proficient in reading and math by 2014 is “admirable but absolutely unattainable.” They say it will put states at constant risk of lawsuits when schools fall short and claim they were underfunded.

On Capitol Hill, the Republican chairman of the House education committee, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, said the federal government is fairly holding state accountable for results.

“Some lobbying groups and state agencies, unfortunately, want to have it both ways,” Boehner said. “They want the funding No Child Left Behind is providing, but they don’t want to meet the high standards that come with it. ... This should not be acceptable to anyone.”

Unclear is what will happen if the states don’t get the changes they want. At least nine state legislatures are considering bills that challenge the law in different degrees. In the least, the report is a firm form of protest to Bush on his signature education law.

The report says states should be able to:

  • Decide how much weight to give to standardized tests and any other measures of student performance schools use. The law says tests must be the primary way progress is measured.
  • Measure the academic growth of students as they move among grades, as opposed to comparing the test scores of the current year’s students to last year’s, as is now required.
  • Decide when teachers can be exempted from having to be “highly qualified” under law.

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