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Schools want action from candidates

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Don’t expect presidential hopefuls John McCain or Barack Obama to win over America talking about education.

Despite its importance, education will likely be overshadowed in elections this November by what seems to be more pressing topics ” high gas prices, global warming, a sagging economy and the war in Iraq, says Eric Olsen, a teaching coach for Eagle County Schools and a close follower of education politics.

Education still though has a place in the debate, especially at the state level, where votes on education bills are a routine part of the job.



Local educators are especially interested in how candidates in both state and national races will handle the current hot topics ” reforming No Child Left Behind, making pre-school a priority and finding better ways to fund schools in Colorado.

Whether you love or hate it, the teaching profession has changed dramatically because of No Child Left Behind, the federal education policy that requires schools to show yearly improvements on standardized test scores.



It seems local educators aren’t looking for a repeal of No Child Left Behind, but are very interested to see how candidates would go about reforming it, Olsen said.

“No Child left Behind really did change the dialogue about education, and it’s been a constructive dialogue,” Olsen said. “There’s much more accountability, and we’re searching for new ways to improve education.”

The reform is missing the mark though when it comes to the ways schools are held accountable, Olsen said. A big frustration with many teachers is the weight given to standardized test scores.



At every school in Colorado, a certain percentage of students must score advanced, proficient or partially proficient on the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, for a school to meet No Child Left Behind standards.

No Child Left behind doesn’t just look at a school’s overall scores ” students are broken down by ethnicity, learning disabilities, socio-economic background and several other groups. Students must meet the target scores in each of these groups in order to meet No Child Left Behind standards.

The percentage of students needing to score well on the CSAP automatically goes up every year, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for schools to meet those ratcheted goals, said Sandra Smyser, superintendent for the school district.

Starting this year, test scores for students who have lived in the country fewer than three years and can’t speak English will be counted for districts, whereas they used to be exempt. This will make it very difficult for schools to meet their federal goals, and the school district will likely take a dip this year, Smyser said.

The ideal elected officials would have a full understanding of the effects of No Child Left Behind and have good ideas on how to improve it, Smyser said.

“I’m fully supportive that we shouldn’t get a bye, that we should be held accountable, but is there a more reasonable way? Is there some better way to measure?” Smyser said.

What seems to be the biggest frustration with educators is the concept of the “unfunded mandate” ” the government telling schools they have to meet certain goals, like those set by No Child Left Behind, but not funding the kinds of programs that allow schools to meet those goals, says Phi Onofrio, chief financial officer for the school district.

The school district spends millions to meet federal mandates, but is only funded for small portions of that, he said.

“Schools are asked to do these things by the federal government, but there’s no money there to do what it is they’re asked to do,” Olsen said.

In Colorado, there’s a more long term debate brewing about how public education will be funded in the in the future, a debate complicated by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, known as TABOR, and the current court battle going on now about a controversial property tax freeze.

Smyser wants to make sure that in the future, Colorado has a stable source of funding for schools, and legislators need to have solutions to make sure that happens.

Smyser said a local candidate should have a pretty good grasp of the “Believe In a Better Colorado” initiative, a collective of educators trying to find a solution to the state’s funding problems.

“If our funding source is unstable and goes up and down, all the plans and things we’re putting in place to help kids, we’ll have to take apart,” Smyser said. “All of us want to know that it’s stable and that we can build programs and make improvements.”

Early-childhood education has become another rallying point for educators.

Research shows that quality preschool education is a huge boost for students, but for some reason, legislators have been slow to recognize it, said school board member Jeanne McQueeney.

Lately though, that attitude seems to be changing.

“It’s not that the research is new ” it’s being interpreted in a way the average person can say, ‘Oh, I should be doing that,'” McQueeney said. “They’re beginning to see the real effects of developing those kinds of programs and how they can help kids.”

She said she’ll be looking for candidates that seem to understand the importance of early childhood education and are willing to make it a bigger part of Colorado’s education system.

Again, this comes down to money. There are some preschools in most districts, but it’s sort of a “skeleton” system and not really fleshed out.

A good sign is that the state appears to be making a commitment to full-day kindergarten, Smyser said.

“What they would like to do is slowly increase the funding each year until we’re fully funded,” Smyser said.

Want to learn more about how No Child Left Behind works? Visit http://www.ed.gov/nclb

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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