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Because of the Bush administration’s poor environmental performance, and because High Country News reports regularly on the environment, we are occasionally accused of having it in for the president. That’s not true, of course; the Bush environmental record just isn’t very pretty. It’s darn difficult to put a positive gloss on, for example, a Clear Skies Initiative that makes air dirtier.

Now, however, I can provide our critics a Bush-positive counterpoint: I hereby declare the president’s No Child Left Behind education policy to be, generally speaking, a good idea. I understand the American mania against federal intrusion into public education, and the widespread belief that parents and the school boards they elect should set local education policy. I’ve just reported on too many dysfunctional local school boards to actually believe in the local-control bromides.

I live in Paonia, Colo., population 1,500, and it’s a wonderful town, but my kids will almost certainly live in many places during their lives. So they need an education that works anywhere. One way to tell if they are getting it is to test them and their peers around the country and then compare their performance to a national standard that seems reasonable. Without that No Child Left Behind back-check, there is no real way to hold a local school district accountable.

Any new government policy, of course, produces unintended consequences, and NCLB has had its share. This issue’s cover story, “Rural Education 2.0” by Samuel Western, is a disheartening example of unintended consequences — in regard to both standardized testing and the new, new thing in education, online schools — allowed to run absolutely amok.

In a truly shocking case of failed state oversight, a small rural school district in Vilas, Colo., was able to join forces with the Hope Co-Op Online Learning Academy to provide online classes to thousands of students in Denver and other urban areas. This arrangement benefited both urban and rural schools — but in perverse ways that left a lot of children behind.

Many of the urban students going online were poor performers on the standardized tests by which school districts are rated in the No Child Left Behind era. When they went to Hope, the students took their bad test scores with them. The city school districts deny “dumping” at-risk kids into Hope or other rurally based online programs. The denials aren’t very convincing. The urban-to-rural shift also benefited the Vilas school district and its Hope charter school. As at-risk city kids flocked to these online schools, Vilas and Hope raked in millions of dollars in state funding and presented themselves as leaders in educational innovation.

But as an investigation by the Colorado auditor shows, Vilas and Hope weren’t innovating, they were failing. Teacher-student ratios were appalling, bad test scores stayed bad or got worse, and over several years, the Colorado Department of Education took no useful action to improve the situation.

The Vilas-Hope fiasco doesn’t mean that online education should end. Online schools have a role to play in the public school system, especially in serving rural areas without the resources to offer calculus, or Cantonese, or other courses that were once electives but may soon be mandatory to thrive in a networked world.

Online schools are booming and signing up students across whole states and regions; because of the unbounded nature of the Internet, they are almost certain to go national. Local school boards are not equipped to watch over such far-flung enterprises, and if Colorado is any indication, neither are state education departments. Should President Bush want to expand his domestic legacy, he might consider dangling and brandishing some federal carrots and sticks that might inspire the state and local folks to ensure no student gets left behind just because he or she has gone online.

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