Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

Statement of William J. Mathis on the filing of the Lawsuit Regarding the Inadequate Funding of the No Child Left Behind act

NEA Building
Washington DC
April 20, 2005

It is the cruelest illusion to give our children promises we never intend to keep; assuring in sweet sound bites the promise of a coming day while withholding the means to bring the dawn of that very day. It is deceitful to boast of generous “historic” funding increases that have, in reality, been meager and inadequate. It is mean to stigmatize schools by sewing scarlet letters of failure on those that have been denied.

Yet this is precisely what the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act has done and we stand here to say not only is this illegal, it is wrong.

And we do not stand alone. Policymakers in 41 of the 50 states have entered some form of remonstrance from conservative Utah to liberal Connecticut. North Dakota has objected to unreasonable teacher mandates while Texas has refused to treat handicapped children as if they were not.

Perhaps, it is only our federal administration that fails to see the breadth of discontent across the nation.

I address three essential areas: the costs of NCLB, the effects of poverty, and the purpose of education.

The Cost of NCLB – Details regarding appropriations levels, authorization levels and entitlement definitions are amply described in our court filing (www.nea.org/lawsuit). Yet these finance terms do not tell the entire story.

The federal government has boasted about what they say are “40%” and “50%” increases in funds to help deprived children (Title I). However, a 50% increase in a small thing is still a small thing. Title I is only 2.6% of total education spending and the administration’s “historic” increases amount to less than a one percent increase in total spending. This scant sum hardly covers a school’s annual increases in health care premiums. The president’s budget request has asked that even this paltry amount be cut next year.

As of last fall, 13 state level studies of the bureaucratic costs had been completed. These studies show that administrative costs will consume between two, and two-and-a-half percent of all educational expenditures. Note that this amount is more than double the increase in federal funding.

But what does it cost to teach our most needy children? This is a more important issue than authorization and appropriations levels. As of last fall, there were 46 state level adequacy studies designed to determine how much it costs to bring children up to state standards as required by NCLB. The median of these studies is a 27.5% increase in overall education spending. Contrast these findings with the administration’s claim that the law is more than fully funded with an increase not even reaching one percent.

The Effects of Poverty – The primary problem is that policymakers underestimate the effects of poverty.

Driving home in the dark of winter, I saw a student sitting on the church steps. My headlights picked him up through the bars of the hand-railing. In elementary school, he danced in the school play with a red bow tie. Now, Dad’s gone and Mom works most nights. There’s a suggestion of violence at home. He hangs with a rough crowd. His grades drop and he slowly drifts away. I send the guidance counselors after him -- but we lose him. He’s a drop-out and he will be marked against the school in the NCLB scores.

Now what narrow, one-eyed vision led our national policymakers to believe that a new phonics program, a lot of tests, and a school improvement plan will single-handedly overcome poverty? As David Berliner notes, schools have children just over 1000 waking hours while the family and the neighborhood have them for almost 5000 hours each year.

In Vermont, the communities where schools were not making adequate NCLB progress had a poverty rate 50% higher than the state average, the child poverty rate was double, the proportion of families on public assistance was 67% higher, and the proportion of adults without a high school diploma was 40% higher.

The system measures poverty. With an increasing severity of sanctions, NCLB then punishes the victims of its own perversity. The law does not allow schools to be measured by the quality of teaching, the size of the challenges a school must overcome, or by the one-at-a-time miracles performed by caring teachers. We should be concerned that NCLB status can be predicted by a school’s zip code.

The Purpose of Education – At a community forum, I was showing graphs of our test scores and direly warning the parents about the “ability of our students to globally compete in an international workforce.”

A Mother spoke up. She said, “I don’t want my son to be an international competitor in a global workforce. I want him to be a good husband, a contributor to his community, and a good neighbor. I want him to be a good man!”

Isn’t this what we all want for our children?

John Dewey said, we must build new generations that will, in turn, leave the world a more generous, complete and richly endowed world than what they received. Secretary Spellings said, “What gets measured gets done.” NCLB doesn’t measure the generosity of our world or a Mother’s dream.

We should take heed that practically every prominent and independent researcher not working for a think-tank says NCLB cannot work. Witness the remarks of former American Education Research Association presidents Lorrie Sheppard, Robert Linn and James Popham. We should take council from our culture’s wisdom rather than be captured by the pride of stubborn ideological persistence.

Mothers often leave their children at the school before 7:00am as they go to work. We bring the children in the warm and feed them, give them a hug, a kind word. While we have been reporting test scores (and disaggregating them) for over twenty years, test scores are not all that matters in education. But NCLB doesn’t measure these other things.

A Solemn Compact – Accountability is a solemn compact between the government and schools with essential obligations required of both. The government may ask schools to be accountable but it must also be accountable for providing, in proportionate and adequate measure, the resources necessary to make the requirements a reality.

In turn, the schools must teach the children.

We teach the children to keep their promises, for such compacts are a vital requisite for a civilized society. Unfortunately, the federal government has not kept their promises. It has broken the compact.

We ask the government to honor their commitments with more than pious public platitudes. Instead of hearing of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” the government must be accountable for the hard bigotry of denying children the very means to reach high expectations. Only then will we have left no child behind.

— William Mathis, Superintendent , rural plaintiff districts of Vermont
Press Conference


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.