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Chocola, Donnelly speak on funding, testing, intelligent design

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Candidates talk about education
Chocola, Donnelly speak on funding, testing, intelligent design.
South Bend Tribune Political Writer

October 3, 2006

The state of the nation's educational system, from elementary and secondary to post-secondary education, has long been a concern.

While many students are doing very well, the fear is that many are not, and that even those who are succeeding are still behind their counterparts in Europe and Asia.

In 2002, President Bush initiated the No Child Left Behind law, which has since been the subject of both praise and criticism.

U.S. Rep. Chris Chocola, R-2nd, and Democratic congressional challenger Joe Donnelly were asked to comment on the state of education and how they might improve it for this latest installment in a series of issue-oriented articles to appear in the weeks before the Nov. 7 election.

Q. The future of the nation's economy seems to be focusing on the need for better-educated and highly skilled employees at a time when the gap between incomes and the cost of post-secondary education is growing. How would you address this problem?

Chocola: I have supported increased Pell grants and I've supported increased student loan programs and the availability of money to students. I do think we need to support access to higher education. Student loans is one way. Pell grants is another way.

I have also supported what are called 529 accounts, which allow people to put money in college savings accounts and then that money grows tax free and can be taken out tax free for educational needs, primarily for college tuition. That was going to expire in 2010. The bill I worked on extended that permanently and is law. So giving people the ability to save for college is important.

Another thing, we have to ask the colleges and universities to justify their tuition increases. College tuitions have gone up much faster than inflation.

If ... they want to participate in student loan and Pell Grant programs, they need to justify why their costs have gone up so much.

Donnelly: This is one of the areas where I think there is a huge difference between Chris Chocola and me. The last Congress that he was a part of voted to cut Pell Grant funding. I would not have. These pools are absolutely critical to middle-class families and working families being able to send their children on to college and achieve the American dream. It's much more important to fund Pell Grants than it is to give additional tax breaks to oil companies.

In addition, we need to provide college funding opportunities for our military veterans who are coming back every day. The least we can do for them is to provide an opportunity for future success. They had an opportunity in the last Congress to provide $50 million in additional funding for military personnel, and the last Congress voted against that opportunity. I would have voted for it.

Q. There have been reports that 27 percent of U.S. schools failed to meet the No Child Left Behind law's "annual yearly progress" requirement for 2004-05, which means they could face penalties.

There have also been complaints that some schools have sought to evade penalties by not counting minority test scores in required categories.

Do you support this program as it is, or do you favor a different approach?

Donnelly: I support setting goals for schools. With No Child Left Behind, we can make significant improvements. We can provide the funding levels that were promised when the legislation was passed. In 2005, we fell $13.5 billion behind the original promised funding for that calendar year. What's happened, we've in effect created an underfunded federal mandate that has put an additional burden on our teachers and schools.

Chocola: I support the principles of No Child Left Behind. I think the principles are sound, but the implementation always has to be under review.

Let's understand if they're learning. For those kids who aren't learning to an adequate level, let's give them more help. If they can't learn where they are, give them more options. The focus should always be on the kids.

Q. What other changes in elementary and secondary education in the United States would you recommend?

Chocola: The one thing I think we have to remember is that education is a local issue. Only around 5 percent of all funding for education comes from the federal government. Well over 90 percent comes from local sources, so local school boards, school administrators, teachers and parents, those who are delivering and consuming the education, should be the ones that ultimately determine how you deliver the best education in our communities.

To have people in Washington making decisions for local schools is not always the most effective way to determine how to deliver the best education to our kids.

Donnelly: In terms of elementary and secondary education, we have to work to provide an educational opportunity for all children, no matter what income level. One of the things we also see is family structure. Family environment has a tremendous effect on education.

I was blessed to speak at a middle school in South Bend where 85 percent of the children received federal lunch assistance, and where poverty and broken homes played a large role in that situation. So we have to work to strengthen families and provide good jobs and appropriate federal funding.

Q. Is there too much reliance on standardized testing, and have the tests themselves been dumb-downed to make them easier and cheaper to grade?

Donnelly: My biggest concern about standardized testing is that our teachers and schools are forced to teach to the test, as opposed to getting deep into their subject curriculum with the students. It is a balancing act. We need to have some idea of our student progress, but we do not want to become so focused on the test that we forget the purpose of education.

Chocola: The only way that I know how to determine whether children are learning is to test them with some kind of standardized test. No Child Left Behind allows the states to determine what test to use. I think we should always try to find the best tool to determine whether our kids are learning. We have to rely on educators who are in the business of providing education to try and determine the best tools.

Q. Would you support higher pay for teachers and new standards to assure that only the best and brightest are given the responsibility of teaching the nation's children?

Chocola: Sure. We are entrusting them with our children's future. A good education is the foundation for opportunity. In the new economy, a lot of the jobs that are going to be available are going to be dependent upon a good education.

We should reward high-performing teachers. We should find ways to strengthen teacher training. For those who want to continue their education, I think that we should find ways to support that.

Donnelly: I would support additional pay for teachers. My concern with ranking and retention of our teachers by performance is, who is going to be making those determinations? I believe in promotion on the basis of merit, but I want to make sure it's done in a fair fashion. You see incredible signing bonuses in other professions. In my opinion, there is no profession more important than those who would be teaching our children.

Q. Do you believe that "intelligent design" should be part of school science curricula, either alongside or instead of evolution?

Donnelly: I think that evolution has stood the test of time. I would leave that to the local school boards. I think there's many steps before it gets to the federal level. I'd rather let the local officials and state officials deal with it. If it comes to my level, then I'd be happy to work on it.

Chocola: It's one of these things that I have personal beliefs, but I think these things are in many cases local decisions. My personal belief is that you should at least present intelligent design alongside evolution. It should be local school boards and parents and teachers and administrators that decide how you provide the best education.

Staff writer James Wensits:
(574) 235-6353,91,0,0,1,0

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