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Paige doesn't expect states to opt out of No Child Left Behind
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Secretary of Education Rodney Paige talks with St. Paul School Superintendent Pat Harvey during a visit to an elementary school in the city on Wednesday. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
The nation's top education official says he thinks few states will follow through on recent threats to bail out on the federal No Child Left Behind law. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige was in St. Paul Tuesday, meeting with small groups of school leaders and policymakers to discuss the law's school accountability and testing rules. The visit came one day after a state Senate committee gave its preliminary approval to a bill that would cut state ties with the law, and forfeit millions of dollars in federal aid.

St. Paul, Minn. — U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige toured several classrooms at Sheridan Elementary School in St. Paul, talking briefly with students and teachers. He also held a brief meeting with Superintendent Pat Harvey and a dozen of the district's principals. Paige praised the educators for implementing the No Child Left Behind law in their schools.

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Image "We're not going backwards"

"I recognize that we can make laws and provide resources and technical assistance in Washington, D.C. But when schools actually change, they will do so as the result of the men and women who walk up and down the halls of the schools, and look into the eyes of the children," Paige said.

Paige has spent a lot of time in schools lately defending the landmark federal education law, which is under increasing attack throughout the country. No Child Left Behind brought an unprecedented level of federal involvement to K-12 education. The bill requires tough new accountability measures, increased student testing and new training requirements for all teachers.

Nancy Stachel, principal of Como Park Elementary, told Paige that schools should be held accountable for the quality of teaching, not just how students do on tests.

"I think we need to focus on the quality of instruction, because that's the thing we can control. We can't control the skills students bring to the table," said Stachel. "And we certainly don't need No Child Left Behind to prove to us what research already shows, which is that kids from poverty and English language learners bring fewer skills to the table. We know that."

We can't control the skills students bring to the table. And we certainly don't need No Child Left Behind to prove ... that kids from poverty, and English language learners bring fewer skills to the table.
- Nancy Stachel, principal of Como Park Elementary

St. Paul principals provided a polite critique of the federal law. But the criticism is growing much sharper in the political arena. Lawmakers in about a dozen states, including Minnesota, are considering revolts against the law. The main complaints are that it amounts to too much federal intrusion, and that states have been given too little money to carry out the requirements.

Paige says there's been a lot of emotional discussion about the law. But he says he doesn't expect many states will follow through with their threats.

"Once it's very clear on our willingness to be as flexible as the law will permit, everybody's going to understand that this is the best thing for children," Paige said. "And I would almost bet you, in the final analysis, that there's going to be very little of this opting out business."

Paige says states that would decide to opt out would lose money earmarked for the implementation of No Child Left Behind, as well as federal funding for other educational programs. Minnesota's potential loss could top $200 million a year.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who accompanied Paige on his visit, said that's not an option.

"I know there are some concerns. I think the secretary and President Bush have indicated a willingness to hear those concerns and to try to improve the law, but we are not going backwards. We are going forwards," Pawlenty said. "No Child Left Behind is a good piece of legislation, and we're not going to opt out of it in Minnesota."

Secretary Paige says there's a lot confusion and misunderstanding about No Child Left Behind. He blames what he called "Washington D.C.-based union organizations" for fueling much of that misunderstanding. Paige says No Child Left Behind is actually one of the most flexible laws ever written.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-Minn., disagrees. She calls it a massive unfunded mandate.

"We're not being given the opportunity, as a state, to work on those areas which we've identified ourselves that need improvement for our students," McCollum said. "Instead, we have the federal government putting another layer, which is sapping resources, precious resources away from our children."

McCollum also criticized Paige for holding a closed meeting with a select group of superintendents. State education officials said they arranged the closed meeting to allow a free exchange of ideas with the secretary.

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