Spellings Should Cool the Insults; Check the Results
Note: this is the paper's political columnist, and good for her for nailing it. Good for her for not letting Spellings get away with the same old claptrap. It can't be said too often: performance is largely tied to socioeconomic status. Connecticut includes the very rich and the very poor. The fact that the poor perform poorly on standardized tests does now reflect bigotry of low expectations. It reflects a national unwillingness to deal with the minimum wage, low-income housing, health care, etc.
Margaret Spellings has a lot of nerve. How dare she insult Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg and, by extension, all state residents with her assertion that Connecticut is content to let minority students fail?
If Spellings, the U.S. education secretary, had leveled that charge against Mississippi, West Virginia or Utah, states which bring up the rear in per-pupil spending, it might have some legitimacy.
But to suggest, as she did in a nationally televised news show, that Connecticut is "un-American" and practices "the soft bigotry of low expectations" is not only offensive but demonstrates her total misreading of this state. Prejudice has no place here, as evidenced by last week's enactment of a groundbreaking civil unions law.
In terms of raising the performance levels of minority students, few states have pushed harder or dedicated more resources to the effort than this one.
Since 1997, Connecticut has invested $600 million in pre-school and after-school programs, early reading instruction and a multiplicity of services for disadvantaged students. That figure doesn't include the billions of dollars spent over the past 15 years, by virtue of the state's Education Cost Sharing formula, on schools with the lowest-performing students. It also doesn't include the hundreds of millions aimed at desegregating city schools through programs such as Open Choice.
Yet, despite those Herculean efforts, the achievement gap is among the widest in the nation. That's because performance is largely tied to socioeconomic status. And in this state of extreme wealth and poverty, white students outperform their peers nationally, while minority students struggle to keep pace. Nonetheless, in the past four years, the gap between Connecticut's least advantaged and most advantaged students has been closing.
Federal officials refuse to acknowledge that progress. They've blindly stuck to the rigid protocols laid out in the No Child Left Behind law, even though layers of additional testing won't tell experts anything more than they've already gleaned from 20 years of Mastery Test scores.
In truth, the Spellings/Sternberg faceoff isn't about educational equality; it's about a federal bureaucracy that defines issues in simplistic, messianic terms and a state whose leaders understand that raising the performance levels of all kids is a challenge that defies simplistic solutions.
After Spellings mouthed off on PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Sternberg fired off a letter demanding an apology and rebuking the Cabinet secretary for her inflammatory comments. In an effort to cool the rhetoric, the adversaries met in Washington. There, Connecticut officials stressed that they have "the highest expectations for all [their] students and will continue to address the gap between ethnic and racial minorities" and white students.
The meeting was cordial but predictably futile. It soon became clear that Spellings had no intention of apologizing or, more important, of waiving the requirement that Connecticut begin testing students in grades 3, 5 and 7 - a burden that carries an $8 million price tag but no remuneration from Washington.
Connecticut is not alone in questioning the unfunded mandates. That the Bush administration has failed to back up the rigorous demands of NLCB with enough money is proving to be a deal-breaker for local officials across the country, though their disapproval is four years late. They should have spoken up when NCLB, with its unrealistic goals and impractical solutions, was under consideration by Congress.
Last week, however, the National Education Association, a union of 2.7 million members, and nine school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont sued the Bush administration, seeking to free schools from complying with any of NCLB's provisions that aren't paid for with federal funds.
Connecticut is expected to blaze its own litigious path. In a lawsuit that's attracting national attention, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal will argue that the Bush administration has illegally and improperly withheld the money necessary to implement NCLB.
The suit will almost certainly inflame passions, not dampen them. But Spellings ought to peddle her hateful propaganda elsewhere. Connecticut knows what needs to be done to close the achievement gap. Her hectoring won't help reach the goal any faster.
Michele Jacklin is The Courant's political columnist. Her column appears every Wednesday and Sunday. To leave her a comment, please call
860-241-3163 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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