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NCLB Outrages

Education, chutzpah and the GOP

The misguided reforms of No Child Left Behind are merely symptoms. The illness has taken years to consume the Republican Party.

The author makes the point that both the bad schools and the good schools are suffering: The bad schools are losing the students needed for academic stability; the good schools are becoming overwhelmed with lower-achieving students.


By Don Campbell

In the spirit of the federal No Child Left Behind law — motto: “All Tests, All The Time” — I offer to the nation's social studies teachers this brief quiz for your students:

Name the political party:

1) that in its 1980 national convention platform called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education.

2) that has controlled the White House 17 of the past 25 years, a period in which the president's proposed Department of Education's budget increased more than five-fold, to $68.8 billion in 2006 from $13.2 billion in 1982.

3) that for decades extolled the virtues of neighborhood schools and condemned the busing of school children as a “prescription for disaster.”

4) whose presidential nominee said in a 2000 debate, “I don't like it when the federal government tells us what to do. I believe in local control of schools.”

5) whose leader five years ago pushed through Congress the most arbitrary set of federal regulations public education has ever seen, a law that, among other things, sanctions the wholesale busing of children away from their neighborhood schools.

If your students know how to spell R-E-P-U-B-L-I-C-A-N, give them an “A”. Next week, have them learn the meaning of the word “chutzpah.”

Because chutzpah is what it takes for George W. Bush, who styles himself as the education president, to foist this program off on the American people and call it “No Child Left Behind.” The leader of a party that has demonized public education and federal regulations for a generation is building a legacy of political audacity.

And he's not done yet. With White House backing, Republicans in Congress have slipped into this year's budget bill a scheme to further tighten the federal grip on local education by setting up a national rating of academic rigor for high schools. The rating would be used in awarding a new kind of federal grant for low-income students headed to college.

It is all of a piece: the morphing of the GOP into the party that stands for more intrusive government, political pork, budget deficits — and the trampling of states' rights that interfere with a federal social-issue agenda.

No Child Left Behind is just the most obvious example of hypocritical Republicans talking one game and playing another.

The law was presented in 2001 as a way to short-circuit efforts by local school officials to cover up their mistakes and failures. It ties federal aid to increasingly severe sanctions if schools don't show “adequate yearly progress” in an unending battery of tests and requires that all students achieve the same “proficiency” level by 2014.

Most assessments of the program that I've read have been either mixed or decidedly negative. To be fair, some math scores are rising because of the law's requirements, and the achievement gap between whites and blacks seems to be narrowing. But though some good might come out of it, the anecdotal evidence in my own back yard — suburban Atlanta's DeKalb County — suggests that one component of the program is doing more harm than good.

The law requires that students at under-performing schools be allowed to transfer to another school of their choice at the failing school's expense. In 2003-04, the latest school year in which national figures are available, 31,000 students in the USA exercised that option, but the situation in DeKalb County suggests that figure is skyrocketing. Students in DeKalb's failing schools are leaving their classmates behind in droves and fleeing to higher-achieving schools. These “receiving schools” are being forced to set up mobile classrooms, shuffle bus routes and hire extra teachers to accommodate the flood.

Here's the upshot: While the number of students fleeing weaker schools in DeKalb has increased in three years from 32 to almost 1,600, the number of schools qualified to receive the students has dropped from 25 to 13. So both the bad schools and the good schools are suffering: The bad schools are losing the students needed for academic stability; the good schools are becoming overwhelmed with lower-achieving students.

Crawford Lewis, superintendent of DeKalb County schools, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “no matter how well-intentioned the law is, it punishes schools that are doing well … yet the school district has a moral responsibility to do what the federal government wants us to do.” The problem is compounded, he says, because it's the successful students who are fleeing the inferior schools, not the struggling ones. And, as The New York Times have reported, few of the students being left behind across the country are getting the tutoring that the law provides, in part because of the red tape involved.

This brainchild of a Republican administration echoes a familiar liberal Democratic refrain: Don't judge us by our results, judge us by our good intentions.

Eventually, the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington will have to acknowledge that not all children can perform at an arbitrary level. Some start so far behind, and live in such dysfunctional or impoverished environments, that they're never going to perform on a par with their higher-scoring classmates. To improve at all, however, they need motivated teachers and caring, involved parents.

The answer is not to stigmatize a school because some of its students are struggling — or to spread the misery. The answer is to try to save each neighborhood school and every student in it with tutoring and other support programs targeted to individual families. And, yes, it will cost lots of money — that was obvious even back when the GOP was calling for the elimination of the Department of Education.

It's certainly clear now that catchy slogans wrapped in federal red tape won't get the job done.

Don Campbell, a lecturer in journalism at Emory University in Atlanta, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

— Don Campbell
USA Today
2006-02-23


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