Colorado must lead in federal education reform
By: Bob Schaffer
Nine months after being appointed to the State Board of Education, I'm still being asked why I would serve.
The answer is that the board is a vitally important - albeit lesser-known - elected body, and in the coming months it will be playing a critical role in changing what is arguably the most sweeping federal domestic legislation of the last generation: the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.
After having helped draft the initial NCLB proposal while serving in Congress, I was ultimately compelled to vote against it. I did so for reasons of principle that today educators in Colorado and former colleagues in Washington say have proved sadly prophetic.
The goals of NCLB - lifting educational achievement for all children, particularly the most vulnerable - are admirable beyond question. However, the mechanisms of implementation have seriously undermined state and local authority and imposed undue burdens and needless confusion upon educators across the land.
So, how does a noble idea go so far astray? The answer is in the nature of the legislative process. NCLB was a huge (more than 1,200 pages) and complex bill. As it moved through Congress, countless compromises were made, many of them contradictory. In the press of events, serious debates were deferred, and often purposely vague language was adopted in the interest of gathering votes.
All of this was predicated on hopes the U.S. Department of Education, in its rule-making processes, could honor the compromises, reconcile the contradictions, preserve "legislative intent," and produce a final product that would somehow retain the allegiance of the core ambitions of the bill.
It didn't - couldn't - happen. The gaps of understanding were simply too wide to be bridged. Almost immediately questions appeared, disagreements arose, and calls for changes were made.
On the plus side, light was cast upon an urgent national problem. Good-faith efforts are being made across the country, but only by paying the high price of weakening those principles of federalism that have always been the bedrock strength of the American Republic.
So what happens now? Can we improve this landmark law so that it helps our children without harming the delicate balance of local and national authority?
Over the next several months, the State Board will have a chance to advise Congress on changes in the law. In fact, the Board has already proposed certain refinements to Washington.
Already, the U.S. House Education Committee (on which I served for six years) has begun its own process of hearing from the states and constructing changes in the law as it moves toward its scheduled reauthorization. Hopefully, the knowledge, experience and relationships I gained while serving in Congress can be of value to the State Board as we seek the best result for Colorado's schoolchildren.
All this will occur in the context of a contentious election year and, undoubtedly, some will try to use the NCLB as a vehicle for gaining partisan advantage. To do that is wrong, and a grave disservice to our neediest children.
What is most needed is a civil and reasoned discourse about how our state and nation can advance the urgent mission of NCLB: ending the "soft bigotry of low expectations" and closing the achievement gap - yet do so without injury to our Western traditions of local control.
Fixing NCLB cannot degenerate into a simple flight from accountability. Colorado's education community must demonstrate that we have a better way to advance the worthy goals of NCLB. Districts like Pueblo 60 and Fountain-Fort Carson have already shown that children of poverty and color can succeed, and they have done so not through more regulation but through old-fashioned virtues like leadership, willpower, and hard work.
For a decade, Colorado has been a leader in education reform. By helping to improve NCLB, we can amplify that reputation.
In today's increasingly competitive world, there is no higher national imperative than education. All of us must be accountable for ensuring young Coloradans are prepared to thrive in that world. Their future and our country's strength depend on it.