The nation’s top education official visited a Mesa charter school Monday to promote reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“We passed the very best law we could five years ago, and now we can improve it based upon what we’ve learned,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in an interview at the Mesa Arts Academy. Spellings toured the campus of the Mesa charter school, housed at the East Valley Boys and Girls Club. Mesa Arts Academy boasts high test scores, while many of its students come from low-income backgrounds and more than half the students come to the school speaking no English, said Susan Douglas, the school’s director.
Spellings used the school as a poster child of success under the No Child Left Behind Act, which, when passed in 2001, was touted as a way to make sure minority children and those with low-income backgrounds achieved at the same level as their wealthier counterparts.
The law mandates annual testing of students in grades 3 through 8 in reading math. Schools with too many failing students eventually face sanctions such as cuts in federal funding.
Nationally, and locally, the law has its critics.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who did not meet with Spellings during her visit, has called the law “erratic” and has charged that it sets schools with high Spanish-speaking populations up to fail because it requires immigrant children to be proficient in English after spending just one year in the country.
Susan Carlson, executive director of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition, which meets with Spellings today, said she supports the law but shares some of Horne’s concerns.
“Arizona is unique among the states in that we have a continual influx of English language learners,” she said. “Other states can take three years to test their students in Spanish or the native language, but our state law requires they are tested in English. That puts Arizona in kind of a losing position.”
But Spellings has a different view.
“Most of our English language learner students are born here. Two-thirds of these kids were born in the United States of America,” she said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable that by the end of the third grade they would be able to read on-grade level in English.”
She did say, however, that a proposal to move toward a “growth model” would help address concerns about English learners because it would measure how much improvement they make every year, and give schools credit for that.
Arizona has applied for a waiver from the federal government to experiment with such a growth model, she said.