Gap Trap 

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This is a tale of two states, and a little bit of irony.

One state, the heavily Democratic Connecticut, hates President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law so much it’s preparing a federal lawsuit challenging the law not just as bad education policy, but also because it’s “blatantly illegal.”

You know the other state, of course. As a percentage of population, no state supported President Bush in his re-election bid quite the way Utah did. But it turns out we don’t like NCLB much more than the good folks of Connecticut. Our lawmakers find it “intrusive.” More than that, it’s expensive. And few states are chintzier about education than Utah, where our shamefully large class sizes herd students through lessons like so many cattle. We hate NCLB so much our lawmakers hardly blink at the prospect of losing $76 million in federal education funds should we snub our nose at the program’s federally mandated accountability standards. We’ve got our own idea of how to measure standards in the form of something called the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students, conveniently acronymized as “U-PASS.” It’s largely untested and nebulous, but what the hey.

It’s not as if NCLB’s flaws aren’t well known. Last year, this very paper dedicated an entire cover story to surveying its problems (“Missing the Grade,” by Sadie Hoagland, Dec. 9). Its requirements are largely unfunded, a tall order for school districts with scant resources. It assumes all American students are somehow typical, and without individual needs. It emphasizes standardized testing at the expense of other educational tools and methods. It’s so regimented in approach as to be disruptive.

Problem is, it also demands that every student regardless of race or social class demonstrate grade-level proficiency in math and reading by 2014. That’s a good thing, as they say, because it’s finally put the spotlight on Utah schools’ shameful achievement gap between Anglo and minority students. Say what you will about NCLB, it has at least done that much. Understandably, people in minority communities aren’t about to let go of that much-needed attention.

More than $70 million in education money aside, that’s why our lawmakers should think long and hard before throwing in the towel on NCLB. With or without that program, this is an issue that must be confronted, and it seems the problem is a lot easier to confront with $76 million at our disposal. Utah lawmakers have let our state’s educational system float on too little money for too long. Now seems an extremely bad time to find out if we can make do with even less.

In a Feb. 26 speech to educators and governors, Microsoft founder Bill Gates had more to say about our nation’s “obsolete” high schools than about President Bush’s NCLB, but he got it right all the same: “Once we realize that we are keeping low-income and minority kids out of rigorous courses, there can be only two arguments for keeping it that way—either we think they can’t learn, or we think they’re not worth teaching. The first argument is factually wrong; the second is morally wrong.”

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