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Education secretary Paige stands by No Child Left Behind in Columbia, Mo. forum

April 19, 2004
By: Alex Yalen
State Capital Bureau

COLUMBIA -- America's foremost education policymaker sat in the shadows of Columbia, Mo., Rock Bridge High School's cavernous auditorium Monday, fending off attacks over No Child Left Behind -- a broad, sweeping education law passed in 2001.

Paige took copious notes. He looked right at his critics. And he said the same thing -- many different times.

"This is a positive law, designed so that every student can achieve," he said.

"No Child Left Behind empowers students and teachers," he said.

"This law stregnthens accountability, and is not tilted to one ideology or the other," he said.

"Our purpose is unchanged: we will make America better through education using bipartisan tactics," he said.

As for the accusation that tests will become the solitary focus of America's education system:

"Testing will make teachers better," Paige offered. And again: "Testing informs the instructional process."

And to a particularly rancorous or leading question, he offered the following response, on several occasions:

"Don't be fooled by the nature of the debate. Democracy is not tidy."

Phyllis Chase, superintendent of Columbia's public schools and the second to speak, charged the federal law produced misleading statistics which, she said, only undermined community support for schools. She said that many of Columbia's No Child "failing" schools only failed because one group failed -- not indicative of the rest of the building.

Where was the reward, she asked, for districts that performed up to the rigorous standards that the No Child Laws required. Finally, she said, the federal government was underfunding -- or not funding at all -- the major programs that school districts need.

Chase's complaints echoed the major complaints nationwide against No Child Left Behind. But Chase said after the forum that she was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied by Paige's response.

"He's aware of the issues," she said, after the meeting. "But he didn't answer all of my concerns."

If the participants of Monday's forum were upset with No Child philosophy, many of them were downright enraged over the state of federal funding.

Just a few weeks ago, 70 school districts asked their residents to pass tax increases -- about 80 percent of them did it. The critics continued, wondering how the federal government can justify the shift of funding burden to local voters.

Rod Paige had this reply:

"This is no unfunded mandate," he said.

In his Monday presentation, Paige refuted multiple times charges that the federal Education Department -- and specifically the Bush administration -- are or have been unresponsive to the complaints of educators.

He cited their flexibility when they reworked four core areas of the No Child law since November. They'd eased up on testing requirements for students learning English and special education students, he said.

Paige said that he'd been through 46 states -- and Missouri twice (just a few weeks ago, he made a similar stop in St. Louis.)

But If Paige was on a mission to show his willingness to listen, Rock Bridge High School Principal Bruce Brotzman said he didn't see it. After everyone had emptied out of the massive auditorium, Brotzman shared the following observation of Rod Paige -- the leading education policymaker in the nation:

"He didn't respond."