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Philadelphia Inquirer
March 5, 2004
by Susan Snyder and Walter F. Naedele


Philadelphia School District head Paul Vallas yesterday told a U.S. Senate panel that he supports the federal No Child Left Behind law, legislation that has been maligned by other school administrators in the state.

Vallas told the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education that the law rightly aims to close the achievement gap between majority and minority groups, and sets high expectations for all students.

But the regulations covering special-education students and limited-English-proficiency students should be modified, and federal funding for the law should be increased, he said.

"Sure, it's not perfect," Vallas said after his testimony. But "we've been crying for a larger role from the federal government in education.  Now we've got it. Let's make it work."

Vallas was one of seven Pennsylvania education officials and community activists called to Washington to testify before the committee, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.).

Several others, including James R. Scanlon, superintendent of the Quakertown Community School District in Bucks County, and James R. Weaver, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, criticized the law.

Specter said yesterday that he invited the Pennsylvania contingent after learning of Monday's meeting at Norristown High School, where 138 Pennsylvania superintendents complained about the law. The administrators concluded that the law - which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement - places too much priority on testing and sets unrealistic goals.

The administrators called for better funding and asked that special-education students be exempt from taking the mandated tests and that testing of students with limited English skills be delayed.

The criticism in Pennsylvania is not unusual. The law has elicited a groundswell of protest in some states and has become a flash point for candidates in the Democratic primaries.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige went before the Senate panel yesterday to discuss the law, and Specter said he wanted Paige to hear the criticisms of the Pennsylvania superintendents as well as the views of Vallas, who heads the state's largest school district, with 200,000 students.

After hearing the testimony, Specter said the law needed modifications.  Special-education and limited-English students should not be held to the same standards, he said: "We need more flexibility."

Among the others testifying were Marie Slobojan, director of instruction, staff development and planning for the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District in Chester County; C. Dolores Tucker, president of the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Non-Violent Change and chair of the National Congress of Black Women; Melissa Jamula, superintendent of the Reading School District; and Samuel Evans, a Philadelphia civil-rights activist and founder of the American Foundation for Negro Affairs.

The hearing comes as the subcommittee considers the proposed 2004-05 budget funding for No Child Left Behind. The Bush administration has asked for a 1.9 percent, or $463 million, increase in funding for the act, increasing the total appropriation to $24.7 billion.

Specter said he thought the increase was reasonable.  Scanlon, the Quakertown superintendent, called the law "destructive."

"It disregards the amount of time, funding and resources [needed] to meet the requirements in the law," he told the senators.

He said he was speaking for the superintendents who met in Norristown.  They represent more than a fourth of the 500 districts in the state, with more than a third of the state's 1.8 million students.

Vallas disagreed. "I don't mind testing," he said, "as long as that test is testing children on state-required standards."

Vallas said Philadelphia had strived to meet the law's requirements. It  has expanded school-choice options, added more rigorous high school courses, instituted after-school and summer-school programs for struggling students, and tried to recruit highly qualified teachers.

"I support the objectives of the act," he said, "the existence of the act, and the accountability that the act brings to all of us."