Leaving Lots of Children Behind
Nothing illegal here? The facts seem abundantly clear. Although the Department of Education was something his father had vowed to kill, this President Bush made it the venue for one of his first reforms – the highly acclaimed plan with that magic title, No Child Left Behind. A major aspect of the bill was to let parents remove their children from failing schools and enroll them in ones that tested better.
To get the reform rolling, Bush summoned a Texas educator he believed had perfected such a scheme. He plucked Superintendent Rod Paige from the Houston school district and made him secretary of education.
Paige thought the media insufficiently appreciative of No Child Left Behind. To spur their greater enthusiasm, his department hit upon a simply terrible idea – to buy their support. An established newspaper columnist, Armstrong Williams (under contract terms yet to be fully disclosed) agreed to compromise whatever professional reputation he enjoyed by praising the president's program through both print and TV outlets. Not out of conviction, mind you, but for quite a lot of money.
The Williams payout was marginally less corrupt than transgressions occurring in some prior administrations. Commentator Williams admits only to "mistakes in judgment." Secretary Paige, soon to be retired, expresses pious hope that his "permissible" use of public funds for clearly propaganda purposes "does not sully the fine people and good name of this department."
That would seem to depend on how thoroughly Congress examines the books. Was Williams a lone beneficiary, or have others shared in the munificence the Department of Education extended in the name of U.S. taxpayers?
A larger question – indeed, an overriding concern must be this: Inasmuch as the secretary felt it necessary to purchase media admiration and support – what does this tell us about his program? What does it portend for raising educational standards across the land?
Well, let's go back to the beginnings. As with chili and football's single wing, this administration's educational policy is known to have been lifted from Texas, amid great huzzahs. It may seem premature to grade the reform nationally. But how's it doing in Texas?
For the answer, we are indebted to an Associated Press report out of Austin, the Lone Star capital – dated Dec. 24, last Christmas Eve. It seems that the past year witnessed a dramatic jump in the number of worst-rated Texas schools under No Child Left Behind. The dismal statistic now stands at 420, more than triple the state's 126 bad ones just a year ago.
A total of 293,000 Texas kids – enough to fill the Cotton Bowl four and a half times over – are deemed eligible under the law to escape those low-rated schools.
That sounds bad. But what about the vaunted Houston system that caught Bush's attention when he still was governor? You remember, the model district that gave us Dr. Paige?
Be sure you're seated for this one. The reformer's old district now leads the whole state in low-rated schools. It admits to 62, which is 14 more than Dallas.
The story gets hairier. Of those 293,000 pupils in the bum schools – the kids who are said to qualify for escape to higher-testing locations – only a few can be expected to make the leap. And the AP tells us why: There's no transportation. Moreover (surprise, surprise) the law doesn't require those better schools to accept them. So regardless what name they give this reform, it's leaving most children behind.
What next? The AP can only speculate.
"Republicans in the Legislature may argue that students need vouchers that can be used at private schools," the account concludes.
One hates to seem cynical. But is it possible that from the very start, No Child Left Behind was a slick trick for accomplishing something quite different?
Van Deerlin represented a San Diego County district in Congress for 18 years.
Lionel Van Deerlin
San Diego Union-Tribune
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES