January 31, 2006

Connecticut rebels against Bush education policy

By Jason Szep

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut (Reuters) - The Bush
administration's "No Child Left Behind" policy will lead to
"dumbing down" tests in public schools because Washington has
not fully funded the policy, the state of Connecticut said in a
court hearing on Tuesday to try to block the program.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told U.S. District
Court in New Haven that President George W. Bush's signature
education policy was "mistaken" and "misguided," as he fought

a motion by the federal government to throw out his

The suit, filed in August, makes Connecticut the first
state seeking to block the 2002 policy that calls for
standardized testing of students.

"If the federal government asks us to undertake the
mandate, we would be willing to do it, but they have to provide
the money," Blumenthal told the court in New Haven.

Blumenthal said federal funding was not enough for the
state to test in a way that maintains its high standards,
leaving Connecticut $41.6 million short of what it needs to
comply with the law. He said that dynamic would force
Connecticut to rely on multiple choice tests rather than
costlier written tests which would better challenge students.

"There is always the option of dumbing down the test to the
point that would be inadequate, and we are not willing to do
that," he said. "We're left with no choice but to either defy
the statute or (follow) an interpretation that we believe is
mistaken and misguided."

U.S. Justice Department attorney Elizabeth Goitein,
representing the U.S. Education Department, said Connecticut
was avoiding its obligations and was aware of the law's demands
when the state accepted education funding from Washington.

The promise of education reform has bolstered Bush's
support among minorities in a country where only two-thirds of
teenagers graduate from high school and only 50 percent of
black Americans and Hispanics graduate.

Connecticut has taken the strongest legal stand yet against
"No Child Left Behind" but other states have also challenged
it. A judge in November threw out a similar lawsuit by the
National Education Association on behalf of school districts in
three states. The state of Utah has rebelled by passing a
measure defying the law.

The heart of the law is standardized testing, currently
conducted in Connecticut in grades four, six and eight.

The law requires that students also be tested in grades
three, five and seven. Scores and other variables like
graduation rates can lead to sanctions against poor-performing
schools. In some cases, schools can be forced to close.

Tuesday's arguments also focused on whether the federal
government would suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in
education funding if Connecticut appealed through the
Department of Education rather than through the court.

Connecticut has the highest graduation rate in the country.
But it also has the nation's worst gap in academic achievement
between rich and poor children, with 18 percent of low-income
9-year-olds proficient in reading, against 53 percent of those
who are not poor.

Connecticut Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg says
that reflects the extreme wealth and poverty in Connecticut,
where Greenwich ranks among America's wealthiest cities and
other cities such as Hartford are among the nation's poorest.