WORCESTER—Roosevelt School third-grader Emily Ellis was a bit surprised, but quite prepared yesterday when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy called on her to help him read a book titled ”The Coyote and the Laughing Butterflies.”
Mr. Kennedy, in town to tout the benefits Massachusetts will reap from the federal government’s recent approval of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act, read to third-graders in the school’s library.
By the time Emily returned to her seat with a ”that was interesting” glance at her friends, Mr. Kennedy had control and the full attention of the group.
He called several more pupils up to read with him, coaching them on how to sound out the words they did not know, whispering the answers when they were really stuck.
He took the time to deepen their understanding of new words, and he laughed and pined with them over the antics of the book’s main character.
In that moment, Mr. Kennedy seemed far removed from the celebrity fanfare that surrounded his visit to the school.
He showed no trace of the toughness he and the rest of the Democratic congressional delegation exhibited in influencing the new education legislation, called the ”The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.”
He was at ease, talking proudly of the fourth-grader he reads to frequently at Brent Elementary School in Washington and of how the pupil has gone from being a struggling reader to a very accomplished one.
Parents, he was to say a short time later, want a good education for their children.
”They don’t care very much whether it comes from the federal, state or local government,” he said. ”They just want it done, and we all have a role to play.”
The Republican leadership had tried to take the education initiative away from Democrats by abandoning its effort to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and by moving to increase the federal role in state education policy.
But while it was Republican President Bush who signed the education bill into law and had the privilege of unveiling it to the nation, Mr. Kennedy and his Democratic colleagues have not been shy in taking a fair amount of the credit.
Among other things, Democrats preserved funding for some of their top priorities, such as bilingual education, while ridding the bill of key Republican provisions — school vouchers and block grants, for example.
Meanwhile, Mr. Kennedy’s downtime with the pupils yesterday did not distract him either, as he deftly sidestepped a potential minefield by choosing not to answer a question about his stand on a bill filed by state Rep. Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, that seeks to dismantle the state’s bilingual program.
”I am here to talk about this today,” Mr. Kennedy said, alluding to the education legislation, which, among other things increases spending by $8 billion over current levels and requires pupils in Grades 3 through 8 to take annual reading and math tests.
Under the act, Massachusetts will receive almost $900 million in federal school aid next year, a $114 million increase over the current school year.
The largest increases will go to Boston, $15 million; Springfield, $6 million; and Worcester, $4 million.
Massachusetts is also expected to develop four added Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Skills tests to assess all pupils in reading and mathematics in Grades 3 through 8 by 2006.
The state is already testing fourth- and eighth-graders annually in math and English.
The state will also receive more than $24 million over the next three years to develop the newly required MCAS tests.
”The good news is that it will build on what we have done under the education reform law,” said David P. Driscoll, state commissioner of education.
”On the other hand, it is going to ratchet things up,” he said. ”There is going to be quite a bit of testing, and it will have a dramatic effect over time, when every school in the commonwealth is going to make yearly annual progress.”
Superintendent of Schools James A. Caradonio noted that under the new law, parents with children in failing schools would be allowed to transfer their children to other schools.
Parents and educators will also be able to use from $500 to $1,000 in Title 1 funds per child on supplemental educational services, including tutoring for those in failing schools. Title 1 is a federal program that provides compensatory instruction to low-income children.
”It will change the accountability system in Massachusetts, hopefully in a positive way,” Mr. Caradonio said.
”But it carries some very clear and severe consequences that were not there before.”