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No Child law irks teachers' unions

Federal statute prompted strike in Oregon town

SANDY, Ore. -- The homecoming game had been canceled, and parents were running out of ways to keep cranky children entertained, because of a teachers' strike in which a major sticking point was more than just a local issue: It was the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In school districts around the country, the Bush administration's centerpiece law on primary and secondary education is beginning to emerge as an issue at the bargaining table.

In Sandy's 4,200-student Oregon Trail District, where the strike is in its third week, teachers are afraid they will be replaced, transferred, or otherwise penalized if they, their students, or their schools fail to measure up under the law, which sets stringent new standards for performance.

While salary and benefits are also stumbling blocks in the dispute, the teachers and the school board in this city of 5,400, about 40 miles southeast of Portland, are wrangling over contract language related to No Child Left Behind. Several bargaining sessions have stretched into the wee hours.

''No Child Left Behind is creating issues we didn't expect four or five years ago," said Larry Wolf, who heads the Oregon Education Association, the state teachers' union.

''The law's approaching deadlines raise flags for both sides," Wolf added.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools must bring increasing percentages of children from all backgrounds up to scratch on reading, math, and writing tests. Schools that repeatedly fail to make enough progress face a series of sanctions, the most serious of which include school closure and takeover by a private company.

The law also says that by the end of this school year, teachers must be ''highly qualified" in the subject they teach. That definition varies from state to state, but it generally means that teachers must have majored in the subject they teach, must be certified by the state, and must pass an exam.

In some places, teachers are pushing for contract language to protect themselves.

In Oregon, for instance, unions are asking for the right to take part in developing new curriculums required under No Child Left Behind, and they want assurances that staff members will not be replaced or transferred if a school's students do not progress according to the standards set by the federal law.

Teachers also want to make sure that student performance on tests is not the basis for negative action against an employee. And they say that school systems should not be able to take into account whether a teacher has been deemed ''highly qualified" during layoffs or recalls.

School board officials say that laws like No Child Left Behind affect what can and cannot go into the contract.

''We can't incorporate things that would violate or conflict with those laws," said an Oregon Trail school board member, Wayne Kuechler.

In Philadelphia, where the public school system is now run by the state, the teachers' union conceded some seniority hiring rights in the latest round of contract talks, to give the district more options in hiring teachers to staff schools that are marked as low performers under the federal law.

''At every turn in the contract negotiations, the press and demands of No Child Left Behind were always present," said a union spokeswoman, Barbara Goodman. ''The bottom line is, there were a lot of changes made in seniority."

In Warwick, R.I., teachers and the district have been negotiating a contract for three years without success, in part because of No Child Left Behind.

''Any time you add additional duties, teachers expect to be paid, which is reasonable," said John Thompson, chairman of the Warwick School Committee. ''But with pension and healthcare costs going through the roof, we can't afford things like higher pay for more work."

To meet No Child Left Behind's requirements, the National School Boards Association is encouraging school systems to consider more aggressive ways of recruiting teachers.

Those include offering higher pay or other incentives to those who agree to teach in hard-to-staff schools or hard-to-fill fields, such as advanced sciences or special education. But those ideas could also cause upheaval during contract talks.

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