Amherst, NY – The landmark $26.5 billion dollar education bill was signed into law Tuesday by President Bush. And U.S. Congressman Tom Reynolds took the opportunity to explain the new law to a group of government honors students yesterday at Amherst Central High School. But if the congressman had been graded on his presentation he might have received an incomplete.
The sweeping bi-partisan education bill maps out three major goals - required and frequent testing to evaluate reading and math skills, raise teacher standards. And perhaps most revolutionary, it aims to close the achievment gap between rich and poor students in America. But based on Congressman Reynolds answers - there seem to be a lot of gaps in the new law.
"Is there any money earmarked for preschool," asked Amherst Central High School Principal Joseph Podgorski. He wasn't the only one with questions following Reynolds presentation. And it wasn't the only question with no clear solutions. There were some cut and dry answers. Schools nationally, and locally have the potential to get a lot more money from the federal government to improve education. Especially poorer schools, because the formaula is weighted based on the wealth of districts.
"I mean, I can't think of anything worse than a student who would be forced to remain in a failed district where they can't get the fundamental education of a neighboring school district, or that their cousin would have in another state," Reynolds said.
In Buffalo, the new education bill could that mean roughly an extra fourteen million dollars more in federal aid. In Amherst it's a lot less, with about 106 thousand more earmarked for 2002. High School senior Kaitlin Buchheit wasn't impressed.
"It's going to be more like school welfare. And being known as a rich school - it's kind of a disadvantage and we won't exactly benefit from this," Kaitlin said. "I think it's good that the schools will be getting this but you have to think where is the money coming from."
And Kaitlin says when she asked the congressman that question, she felt his answer was vague - talking about setting priorities, rather than actual sources of the funding - $258 million more to New York state alone. But many critics say there's a catch. The funding is tied to tests scores. Beginning in 2005, schools that fail to improve scores for three consecutive years would lose the federal funding. But Reynolds says the states get to set their own standards, and design their own tests. And there would be funding for remedial help for two years. After that, however, a school would labeled as a failing school, with students sent somewhere else to learn. That "somewhere" was perhaps the biggest question of all.
Although there is a long list of schools currently under state review -- ten here in Buffalo alone -- only one downstate school, Roosevelt, has so far earned the dubious distinction of a failed school. No decision has yet been made in this case that many say will be a test model for the new reforms. Reynolds says it will be up to each state to set up the mechanisms to deal with failed schools.
"It would seem to me, by just instinct and a little legislative experience, that if it were in a city like New York, they would move the student to another public school. If it were a smaller city where there is only one school system, there would have to be some sort of major decision made about what to do," Reynolds said.
But Reynolds says he's optimistic that worse case scenario won't happen.
"I believe most school districts are going to meet the standards. Just as we've asked our students to accomplish more, we're going to ask our districts to make sure all students are meeting that new level of ability. This thing is just going to raise the bar. And I think most are going to meet it," he said.
But what about teachers, those who will have the daunting task of lifting students over that higher bar? Dave Ulrich teaches honors Government and history at Amherst Central. He says, as in all things political, the devil will be in the details.
"I do have some concerns about the amount of testing that may be demanded. And there are some other parts of the bill that I still have to look at the bill and see how those play out," Ulrich said. "But on the whole, I think it's a positive step forward, and a positive recognition by the federal government that they do indeed have a role, that educatuion is a national issue, and not just a state and local issue."
The education bill also includes additional funding to help pay for all the new assessments that schools are required to give to qualify for the extra federal aid. Students will now be tested every year, beginning in grade three.