You have to have it to the Bush administration. They have a remarkable ability to seize the agenda from Democrats and progressives and force the rest of us to dance to their tune, at least in the short run. I’m talking specifically about the “No Child Left Behind” reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The public education “reform” embodied in “No Child” is truly powerful and is wreaking havoc across the nation. There is a remarkable consistency in Bush policy-making and I’m struck with parallels to the administration’s Iraq gambit. Take a look. Start with a catchy title you can’t argue with: “Operation Iraqi Freedom” [changed from Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL) for obvious reasons]. Or “No Child Left Behind.” How could anybody oppose this? The alternative is “Leave Children Behind?” The Iraq war has bipartisan support; so did “No Child” with Democrats like Ted Kennedy (!) leading the charge. There is a clearly defined enemy: Iraq’s Saddam / public education’s teachers unions. There are “shock and awe” strategies: precision bombing on a massive scale. In public education it’s the cut-off of federal monies, takeover of local systems and reconstitution, i.e. the forced transfer of teachers in “low performing” schools. The policies are similarly flawed in their working assumptions.
The Iraqis will meet us with open arms and flowers and all of public education’s problems will be solved with the Best Test—a one-size-fits-all measure of student achievement. Both policies have hidden agendas. In Iraq it’s regional, political and economic hegemony. It’s where the oil is. With “No Child” it is preparing the ground for full-scale privatization of education, i.e., vouchers. The way you prepare the ground is to get people used to the “choice” charade. If your school fails, you get to go to another one. It’s not the purpose of this article to repeat the critical analysis of “No Child.” As in their foreign policy, the Bush initiatives are shortlived. Iraq is a quagmire and “No Child” flaws are becoming dramatically clear to all who care to look. Here are a few headlines: As opposed to the war machine with its 87 billion cash dollar infusion, the “No Child” budget is cut at the same time this federal law is imposed on a desperately cash starved system. Also, Federal dollars represent only seven to ten percent of public education money and states and local sources are in serious shape. The resources just are not there. In New York City some 200,000 kids qualified for movement to other schools. However, only 1,000 vacancies were available! The tutoring program that was to accompany the transition was cut due to budget constraints. The “No Child” requirement of having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom is great. But what happens to this concept when dollars are cut for professional development, recertification and mentoring. Now add to this list the notion that a standard test is the mechanism for determining progress, despite the conclusions of serious researchers and practitioners. I could go on, but my real purpose is to issue a call for action. There is no doubt that public education needs help. And as in Bush’s foreign policy, I’m afraid that for his administration there is no mistake not worth repeating (i.e., is Iran next?). The case in point is that with the administration’s initiative a voucher program is in place in the District of Columbia, again with bipartisan support. It is time to change direction and retake the agenda to “fix” public education. Make no mistake about the fix. “Failed public education” is not one word. As Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, says, 85% of rich people send their kids to public schools. Those public schools have qualified, well-paid teachers, up-to-date resources, decent buildings, parental involvement, and accountability. Serious reform means leveling up. You can’t level up unless you tackle the funding mechanism that plagues Illinois, where $15,000 is spent per year on a child in Naperville and $5,000 on a child in Iroquois County. In other words, most of the real reform will occur at the state and local levels. And to make those reforms work, it will take a broad coalition of education unions, parents, administrators, and citizens generally. That is a struggle for the long haul. But an immediate starting point is to remake unfunded and unworkable federal standards that now hinder any progress at the state and local levels. There is such a proposal and it’s House Bill 3049. Congressman Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) has proposed this bill that would do the following:
• End reliance on a single test
• Give schools credit for improving student achievement in reasonable time frames.
• Create workable ways to measure skills and progress of students with disabilities and limited English
• Public school choice and supplemental services would be targeted specifically for those students in subgroups that have failed to improve This bill, plus efforts to fully and adequately fund the now unfunded provisions, would go a long way to fix a very flawed policy. The need and opportunity are before us. It’s time to rein in the chaos, build the political coalition, and truly give public education the resources it needs to succeed for every child.
Gene Vanderport a long-time local political activist working in the education labor movement. He is currently a staff representative based in Urbana for the Illinois Education Association (IEA). This article reflects his own thoughts and are not necessarily those of IEA.