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With all the Sturm und Drang befitting a revolution, Newt Gingrich & Co. rolled into Washington in 1994 promising to take an ax to the federal bureaucracy. One of the top targets: the Education Dept., which conservatives saw as a bureaucratic monster encroaching on states' rights. Meanwhile, in Richmond, Va., a new Republican governor had his own idea about fixing schools -- one that would require students to pass tough competency tests. After a public outcry, the Gingrichites beat a hasty retreat. But Governor George Allen's Standards of Learning program was enacted and became one of the first school-accountability programs in the nation.
Education reform is causing an outcry again, but this time state lawmakers are taking aim at the Bush Administration. In 2001, Hill Republicans, prodded by President Bush, opted for a top-down approach to school performance. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) took a page from Allen and applied it nationwide, imposing a rigorous testing regime on states and transforming the agency Gingrich tried to deep-six from a $14 billion backwater into a $22.4 billion behemoth.
It's not just Democrats who are throwing spitballs. Republicans, including now-Senator Allen, blast the law, citing rising costs and hopeless goals. Allen calls the program a "counterproductive federal intrusion" that hampers state reforms. Virginia, for example, already tests students in math and reading -- as well as science, economics, and history -- before graduation. NCLB "would require us to dumb down our standards to the federal level," Allen says. He and Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) have introduced legislation to let some states opt out of No Child directives.
The bill is symptomatic of a growing grassroots rebellion. With all states required to begin testing this year, and as sanctions against lagging schools begin to take effect, more than 20 states are debating whether to drop out and forgo federal funding. Others have simply set ridiculously low standards to make targets easier to meet.
The Administration points to the program's successes, especially rising test scores. "We've gotten assessment results from over half the states, and we're seeing higher math or reading scores in almost every one," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said on Aug. 23.
But states aren't buying it. On Aug. 22, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal -- backed by his Republican governor, Jodi Rell -- sued the federal government, accusing Washington of not ponying up enough money. Other states, such as Maine and New Jersey, are expected to follow suit.
The school revolt is being driven largely by Republicans. "If you go into the states, there are more Republicans opposed to [NCLB] than Democrats," says Neal McCluskey, an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. The rebellion is opening fissures in a GOP already agonizing over the Iraq war and runaway spending on Bush's watch. On one side are small-government Republicans who abhor Washington dictates. On the other are pols like Bush who want to use government's machinery to push conservative ideals -- including shock treatment for failing public schools.
"NCLB, at the grassroots, has become one of a growing litany of frustrations" for Republican hardliners, says Michael Franc, a Heritage Foundation analyst. "They get the sense that conservatives in Washington have lost their competence." But as criticism mounts, Bush is hanging tough. The Reformer-in-Chief reckons that rising math and reading scores will soon silence his critics.