HAMILTON, Ohio, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- President Bush signed into law Tuesday a sweeping $26 billion education act to improve student learning and school teaching performance by annual testing of students in math, reading and science skills.
The law, called the No Child Left Behind Act, was greeted with cheers and applause at the signing ceremony at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio. But in Washington, the National Education Association sounded a warning over the measure's fixing increased responsibility upon state and local educational authorities at a time of shrinking budgets.
"Inadequate support provided to states that are suffering severe economic decline is lamentable," NEA President Bob Chase said in a statement. "Because the new law fails to make special education funding guaranteed, our states' ability to deliver basic support to schools and students will continue to be dramatically hampered.
"This bill imposes multi-year mandates on states and schools without providing multi-year funding."
Chase urged Congress to "rescue states from a financial burden that hurts children and public education" by reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act this year and by paying its fair share. Under the act, Washington is to pay 40 percent of the cost of educating students with disabilities and special needs -- everything from cognitive learning problems to ambulatory equipment -- but has only been paying 15 percent, burdening the states.
"Real reforms and real resources for real results," added NEA spokeswoman Becky Fleischauer.
The NEA is a non-profit organization representing some 2.4 million professional educators and education administrators.
The NCLB, named after Bush's education mantra during the run up to last November's election, passed the House and Senate last year with bipartisan support.
"For those of you who've studied the history of our government, you know most bills are signed at the White House," Bush said. "But I decided to sign this bill in one of the most important places in America -- a public school.
"We've got large challenges here in America. There's no greater challenge than to make sure that every child -- and all of us on this stage mean every child, not just a few children -- every single child, regardless of where they live, how they're raised, the income level of their family, every child receive a first-class education in America."
Bush Tuesday thanked sponsors and supporters of the measure passed last month -- among them Mass. Democrat Sen. Ted Kennedy -- for putting aside bipartisanship to enable its passage.
Under the legislation, annual testing in reading and math skills will be conducted for all children in grades three through eight beginning in the 2004-2005 school year. The following year, testing in science would be added.
The NCLB Act also implements Bush's Reading First initiative by increasing federal funding for reading programs from $300 million in FY 2001 to more than $900 million in FY 2002, and tying federal funding to the use of proven methods of reading instruction.
Also implemented is the new Early Reading First program to support early language, literacy, and pre-reading development of preschool-age children, particularly those from low-income families.
The sum of $2.8 billion is provided for teacher quality and allowing local school districts to use additional federal funds to hire new teachers, increase teacher pay, improve teacher training and development or other uses.
"Every school has a job to do, and that's to teach the basics and teach them well. If we want to make sure no child is left behind, every child must learn to read and every child must learn to add and subtract," Bush said.
"So in return for federal dollars, we are asking states to design accountability systems to show parents and teachers whether or not children can read and write and add and subtract in grades three through eight.
"The fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning. Schools that failed to improve student scores for two years running would be eligible for more federal aid. If scores continued to lag -- compared to local schools and schools statewide -- children from low-income families would be able to obtain tutoring or could opt to be sent to a different school."
The tutoring/transfer option replaces the earlier, more broad proposal of school vouchers, which met stiff opposition on Capitol Hill.
To cheers and applause, he said the bill means to build up public education, not tear it down as many early critics of his proposals charged.
"One of the interesting things about this bill, it says that we're never going to give up on a school that's performing poorly -- that when we find poor performance, a school will be given time and incentives and resources to correct their problems. A school will be given time to try other methodologies -- perhaps other leadership to make sure that people can succeed.
"If, however, schools don't perform -- if, however, given the new resources, focused resources, they are unable to solve the problem of not educating their children, there must be real consequences."
Among those consequences for schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for four consecutive years: possible replacing of school staff or significantly decreasing management authority at the school level. If a school continues to fail, the school could ultimately face restructuring, which involves a fundamental change in governance, such as a State takeover or placement under private management, according to a government fact-sheet on the measure.
States and local authorities, however, will be given greater flexibility in the use of federal education funds. As much as 50 percent of their federal non-Title 1 grants (for educating children from financially disadvantaged families) can be used in ways local authorities believe would most benefit all students. It also consolidates and streamlines programs and targets resources to existing programs that serve poor students, reducing the overall number of ESEA programs from 55 to 45, the administration said.
"... We owe the children of America a good education, and today begins a new era, a new time, in public education in our country," Bush said. "As of this hour, America's schools will be on a new path of reform and a new path of results. Our schools will have higher expectations. We believe every child can learn. Our schools will have greater resources to help meet those goals. Parents will have more information about the schools and more say in how their children are educated.
"From this day forward, all students will have a better chance to learn, to excel, and to live out their dreams. "
In Washington, a spokeswoman for the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers welcomed enactment of the NCLB Act as "a good step in the right direction" with "good, sound, positive elements that will make a difference -- the reading initiative, the accountability measures for student performance stand out in particular."
Following the signing, the president was traveling to New Hampshire and Massachusetts.