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Education Lawsuit Tests Commitment

Ohanian Comment: Landa's answer to the president's charge of 'soft bigotry of low expectations' offers a strong, effective phrase: A harsh bigotry of programmed failure. Even more important, Landa at least acknowledges that many see NCLB as "a full attack on public education."

The president's signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind, suffered its first major challenge last week. The National Education Association, a teacher's union referred to as a "terrorist organization" by former Education Secretary Rod Paige, has filed suit against the federal government for failing to make good on its promise.

The stakes in this battle are huge. The NEA, with its 2.7 million members, doesn't hide the fact that it is strongly opposed to President Bush's educational policies. Last year the union unleashed its membership in the presidential campaign, supporting John Kerry and later backing off to lick its wounds.

But in this fight the NEA is not alone. Along with the union a number of school districts in three states have joined the suit, among them the Laredo School District.

The suit formally alleges what has been an informal complaint for years: that the No Child Left Behind Act is an empty promise. Specifically, the suit hinges on one paragraph of the act, which states that school districts, or states, can't be obligated to spend their own money to make good on the federal government's promises. The suit claims the government has funded $27 billion less than it promised and that states and local school districts have had to make up the difference. Opponents of the act say the paragraph in question nullifies the law unless there is money to back it, and so far there isn't.

Technically, it comes down to a question of states' rights. Do states have an obligation to put an unfunded mandate into practice, when the word of the law itself says they don't? It's an interesting predicament for the administration, especially in the wake of the Terri Schiavo case where the administration came out in fierce favor of states' rights.

The White House defends its position in this case by saying it has increased educational funding by "historic levels." And there is truth to that. During the Bush presidency, education spending, in the programs specified in No Child Left Behind, has increased by 40 percent.

But the lawsuit is using the administration's own language to make its case. School districts, they say, have had to absorb the cost of No Child Left Behind mandates such as testing, bringing children to grade level in reading and math and making sure teachers are exceptionally qualified. If the federal government doesn't provide funding for the mandates, says the NEA, then it shouldn't be able to pull funding from schools that reject the standards because of inadequate funding.

The president is fond of pointing to what he calls the soft bigotry of low expectations that exists in many public schools. But there is a flip side: Unfunded promises are worse. When you raise expectations and fail to provide the means to achieve the higher goals, you are, in effect, inflicting a harsh bigotry of programmed failure.

Bush's policies are seen by many as a full attack on public education. It's a serious contention, because at its inception, No Child Left Behind was touted as a law that would make sure minority and poor children were tended to, especially in light of the fact that they historically have lagged in academic achievement.

Republicans are quickly finding that governing as the majority is much harder than campaigning as the minority. It's a lesson the Democrats never learned, which is why they're in such disarray.

The lesson of the NEA suit is that being in power doesn't mean you get to impose your view on the world, especially if you don't provide the resources to put your view into practice. It also means you can't create double standards. You can't fight for states' rights if it has to do with moral issues and abandon the same idea if it has to do with fiscal matters.

It seems the administration that likes to navigate the clear and straightforward ocean of right and wrong has ventured into the murky sea of governing amid political nuance.

This president likes to steam ahead when all indications call for manning the lifeboats. We'll see how he manages this one.


— Victor Landa
San Antonio Express-News


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