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April 16, 2014

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‘No Child’ law not a hit with U.S. Senate hopefuls

Candidates agree act is flawed but differ on how to improve education

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Leila Navidi

Republican U.S. Senate candidates Sharron Angle, John Chachas, Chad Christensen, Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian during a debate on “Face to Face with Jon Ralston” at the KVBC studios in Las Vegas Tuesday, May 18, 2010.

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Harry Reid

Whoever is elected to Congress in November will review the No Child Left Behind law, looking for ways to improve the landmark federal legislation that uses standardized tests to judge schools’ progress. It’s part of the reauthorization process for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which allocates funding to the nation’s public schools.

The Obama administration is seeking several key changes, including a shift away from automatically allocating dollars based on enrollment and a move toward competitive grants such as “Race to the Top.” Winning states will share $4.4 billion for innovation, reform and teacher development. (Nevada, which missed the deadline for the first round of grant awards because of a conflict in state statute that had to be revised by the Legislature, is one of 38 states competing in the second round.)

The U.S. Education Department is encouraging common standards in core academics, which can vary widely from state to state. Also up for revision: No Child Left Behind’s original goal that every public school student demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics by the 2013-14 academic year. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is pushing for the federal law to reset its sights on a goal of high school graduates who are prepared for the workforce or higher education.

The Sun talked to the leading U.S. Senate candidates about their views on No Child Left Behind, Nevada’s chances in the Race to the Top and the move toward competitive grants.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he has concerns about Duncan’s emphasis on competition in the funding process.

A drastic shift in the funding formula could hurt Nevada, Reid said.

“It should be based on need, and federal education funding is intended to support our most at-risk (student) populations,” Reid said. “School districts and states should not have to use scarce resources to hire grant writers.”

Reid noted “there is very little support” in Congress for a federal funding formula based entirely on competitive grants.

The incumbent has had several meetings with superintendents of Nevada’s 17 school districts, and he “didn’t find any of them to be cheerleaders” for No Child Left Behind.

“The law has caused too many schools to be labeled as failing, and focused teachers more on passing the tests than on teaching,” Reid said.

On the upside, special education and minority students, as well as English-language learners, are making progress “and most states and districts did not do a good job of that before No Child Left Behind,” Reid said.

Reid sent a letter last week to Duncan supporting Nevada’s Race to the Top application, as have Nevada’s House Democrats, Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus. Reid said state lawmakers did the right thing by rewriting existing statute to allow teacher evaluations to be based in part on student test scores. The prohibition against such evaluations had kept Nevada from qualifying for the first round of Race to the Top funding.

As for national standards for public schools, Reid said he supports a compact among governors — which is in the works — for a set of standards. That’s a “big difference” from the feds telling states what standards they must adopt, Reid said.

The leading Republican candidates fighting for the chance to challenge Reid all favor reducing the federal government’s role in education and giving states and local districts more flexibility in determining standards. They see the Obama administration’s education initiatives as part of a larger pattern of federal government overreaching.

Sue Lowden, a casino executive and former chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party, said she supports Race to the Top in theory, but wants the administration to give states and local districts more power to allocate education dollars. She favors merit pay for teachers, but opposes national standards for public schools. “Local school districts should implement standards,” Lowden said, “not an uncaring and unresponsive Washington bureaucracy thousands of miles away from Nevada schools.”

As for No Child Left Behind, Lowden said the law was responsible for some notable improvements in public education, but argues that encouraging “school choice and competition” might do even more.

Danny Tarkanian, a lawyer and Las Vegas businessman, said he opposes No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top because they represent “further expansion of the federal government’s role in our education system,” adding, “states should become less dependent, not more dependent on federal funding.”

He also called for more local control of school districts and opposes national testing standards.

“I have run on a platform that calls for a reduced role for the federal government in our public education system,” Tarkanian said, adding that he supports “a return to local control that can more effectively raise the bar for teaching our children and promotes more accountability for local decision-makers.”

Sharron Angle, a former Reno assemblywoman and Tea Party favorite, opposes the Obama administration’s education efforts, including Race to the Top and national standards. She said the country’s public schools have worsened since the inception of No Child Left Behind.

Her opposition stems from the fundamental belief that the federal government should have no role in public education. “Education spending, policy and programming belong at the state level as close to the classroom as possible,” she said.

“The federal Department of Education should be defunded.”

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