A bipartisan group representing 50 state legislatures called Wednesday for major changes in President Bush's landmark education initiative, No Child Left Behind, which it lambasted as unconstitutional and impractical.
Republican New York state Sen. Steve Saland, who co-chaired a task force that took 10 months to review implementation of No Child Left Behind, said the law had imposed an impractical "one-size-fits-all" education accountability system across the country that was stifling local initiatives.
The task force's report, based on hearings in six cities, praised the law's goal of ending the gap in scholastic achievement between white and minority students. But most of the 77-page report, which the Education Department rebutted Wednesday, was devoted to a detailed inventory and discussion of the program's flaws.
Over the past two years, more than a dozen state legislatures have adopted resolutions criticizing the No Child Left Behind law and demanding changes. But the bipartisan nature of Wednesday's report marked a step-up in the war of words surrounding the law.
The report said the law's accountability system, which punishes schools whose students fail to improve steadily on standardized tests, undermined school improvement efforts already under way in many states and relied on the wrong indicators.
The report said the law's rules for educating disabled students conflict with another federal law. It also said the law presents bureaucratic requirements that fail to recognize the tapestry of educational challenges faced by teachers in the nation's 15,000 school districts.
"Under NCLB, the federal government's role has become excessively intrusive in the day-to-day operations of public education," the National Conference of State Legislatures said in the report, which was written by 16 state legislators and six legislative staff members.
Nine state legislatures are considering challenges to the law, and the Utah Senate is about to vote on a bill, already approved by the Utah House, that would require state education officials to give higher priority to Utah's education laws than to the federal law. An Illinois school district filed suit against the Education Department this month in federal court, arguing that No Child Left Behind contradicts provisions of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
The conference, which has criticized the federal law in the past, represents the nation's 50 state legislatures, has a membership that includes 3,657 Republicans, 3,656 Democrats, as well as a few dozen who were elected from smaller parties, as independents or without any party affiliation.
In compiling its report, the task force conducted public hearings in Washington, Chicago, Salt Lake City, New York, Santa Fe, N.M., and Portland, Ore.
An assistant secretary of education, Ray Simon, met with members of the task force in Washington on Wednesday to discuss the report.
"The department will continue to work with every state to address their concerns and make this law work for their children," Simon said in a statement. "But the report could be interpreted as wanting to reverse the progress we've made."
He added: "No Child Left Behind is bringing new hope and new opportunity to families throughout America, and we will not reverse course."
The law will come up for reauthorization in Congress in 2007. But task force members hoped to persuade Congress to make changes in the law before then.
Several groups that strongly support the federal law disputed the report.
"My big concern is they did a better job of pinpointing problems than identifying solutions," said Susan Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, a group that represents top corporate executives. "Most of what they call for would be a reversal that would turn back the clock on what NCLB is trying to accomplish, all in the name of federalism."
One chapter of the report notes that the Constitution does not delegate powers to educate America's citizens to the federal government, thereby leaving education under state control. The report contends that No Child Left Behind has greatly expanded federal powers to a degree that is unconstitutional.
"This assertion of federal authority into an area historically reserved to the states has had the effect of curtailing additional state innovations and undermining many that had occurred during the past three decades," the report says.
"The task force does not believe that NCLB is constitutional," the report said.
But Steve Kelley, a Democrat who serves in the Minnesota Senate and is a co-chairman of the task force, said the conference had no intention of going to court over the law's constitutionality.
The report also examines what the task force called conflicts between the federal law and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
Under No Child Left Behind, a disabled eighth-grader whom educators deem to be working at a sixth-grade level must take examinations for eighth-graders. The report said the requirement contradicted provisions in the disabilities act requiring school authorities to design a unique instructional program suited to the needs and abilities of each disabled child.
"NCLB requires students with disabilities be tested by grade level, while IDEA mandates that students be taught according to ability," the report said.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle