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NCLB Outrages

Rod Paige Tells Wall Street Journal Readers that It's Not About the Money

How have we been blessed by NCLB? US Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, featured on this site in the comic strip Red Boots, uses the Wall Street Journal editorial page to count the ways, proving once again that he has no shame. None. Besides that, he lies. So what else is new?

Watch for a new Red Boots every Sunday.

A new semantic game is being played out in the corridors of the Capitol -- one that has been echoed in media outlets across America, thanks to a campaign by special interests and their allies in the Democratic Party. Typical of Washington's Beltwayspeak, a cry has gone up, saying that the No Child Left Behind education reform bill is "underfunded." Nothing could be further from the truth. President Bush has increased K-12 education spending by 40% since he took office. That's more in two years than it increased during the eight previous years under President Clinton. In raw terms, this president has increased education spending by $11 billion. As a nation, we now spend $470 billion dollars a year on K-12 education locally and federally -- more than on national defense.

What is "underfunded" about that?

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But in Washington, the land of meaningless jargon, the educational establishment in favor of the status quo says that the law is underfunded because it was appropriated at a level below what was "authorized." As someone who is not a creature of Washington politics, let me translate this into plain English: An authorization is usually a "limiting" number -- the legal maximum level of funding. To use a highway metaphor, it is a guardrail that keeps wildly spending appropriators from driving the federal budget over the cliff. Only those reckless enough to grind against the guardrail would want to reach those levels. The appropriation is usually a number that is closer to the median of the road, the realistic figure needed to do the job. Appropriations are rarely anywhere close to authorization levels, and that is true across the entire federal government.

For example, back in 1994 (the last time the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was up for renewal), the bill had a fiscal-year 1995 authorization level of $7.4 billion for Title I (for economically disadvantaged students). The Democrat-controlled Congress appropriated just under $6.7 billion. Where was the Greek chorus of "underfunders" back then?

Education should not be a spending race. Clearly, just throwing money into the educational system -- the modus operandi for three decades -- has left us with a legacy of public school systems where some children get a great education while others, mostly from poor neighborhoods, are being left behind. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that the U.S. is one of the top spenders in the world in education, yet our 15-year-olds rate merely average versus their peers on tests of reading, math and science.

If money spent were the main indicator of a good education, we would see areas with the highest per-pupil expenditures record the highest test scores. The Jersey City school district (which overspends the U.S. average by $5,000 and the New Jersey state average by $2,000) participated in a Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study benchmarking study recently that compared eighth-graders across the world in a number of subjects. Jersey City students' scores in science, for example, are close to the bottom -- comparable to students in Iran, Indonesia, Jordan, Turkey and Tunisia. Jersey City kids also have double the dropout rate compared to kids in the rest of New Jersey.

Looking closer to home in terms of comparisons, the District of Columbia, which spends near the top on its K-12 students, has the dubious distinction of having the lowest scores in the nation -- including U.S. territories like Guam and Puerto Rico -- in reading and math. Thus, if money were the answer to getting a solid education, most students in Jersey City and D.C. would all be admitted to Harvard or Stanford. Don't be duped; it's not that we don't spend enough. We spend enough for better results. We spend more than virtually all other nations, and still get poor results.

So now, for the first time, the federal government is doing something that is standard operating procedure for most private businesses and even non-profit grant-making institutions: holding recipients (here, public schools) of money -- taxpayer money -- accountable for their results. In other words, the money is coming with strings attached. As well it should. The days of money for nothing in education are over. But this new accountability isn't meant to be punitive -- it's meant to improve the prospects of our children.

For the first time in our history, thanks to No Child Left Behind, every state has an accountability plan that holds all schools and students to high standards. Schools and teachers now have detailed information about their students' achievement so that they can adapt their lessons and better serve all their students. Parents are also getting information about how well their school is performing and about their teacher's qualifications. And parents of students attending high-need schools will receive a letter telling them they have options if their child's school hasn't made sufficient progress over the last couple years. Armed with information and options, parents are forcing change in the schools, just as schools will be forced to change by law.

But the defenders of the mediocre status quo -- who are using the funding argument like a wolf in sheep's clothing as a way to attack the law when what they really don't like is that there will be accountability in education -- continue to use the typical refrain from the left on spending and "underfunding." But no matter how much we spend, it will never be enough for them. This law is a tough law, but it's a good law and it will work.

This is a time to join together, not play semantic games for political posturing. We should all work to solve the educational inequities in this country. Education should not fall prey to partisan bickering and diversionary gamesmanship. The future of our children and our nation is too important for division and sparring by policy makers. Thanks to the president and the Congress we have the right tools for the job. Now, let's replace vitriol with vision, and wisecracks with wisdom -- for the sake of the children.

— Rod Paige
It's Not About the Money
Wall Street Journal


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