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NCLB Outrages

A message to Margaret Spellings

Great. Great. Great. This parent has a single message for Margaret Spellings, who believes her education-shattering NCLB is so blessedly wonderful. Don't miss it.

by T.A. Barnhart

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said Wednesday the No Child Left Behind Act is close to perfect and needs little change as its first major update draws near.

"I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory soap: It's 99.9 percent pure or something," Spellings told reporters. "There's not much needed in the way of change." (source: CNN.com)

Here's what I did Thursday: I spent 9 hours at Reser Stadium overseeing the Corvallis High School Band's concession stand. I do this every home football game so that we can raise $5-6,000 per OSU football season. It's a nice chunk of change and a lot of hard work. Thursday was the first home game; I'll spend another half-dozen days there, including the day after Thanksgiving for the Civil War. That was 9 hours on concrete; I was a broken man the next day. But it's one of the things I do for my son and the Band program at CHS.

For this lovely evening of serving sodas and hot dogs to Beaver Nation, eight parents and eighteen high school students showed up; not bad for a Thursday before school actually starts. I don't mind doing this myself; I know that volunteering for good causes is something we all need to do. I've been volunteering for one thing or another most of my life, and I know I am a better person for it. However, the concessions gig at Reser is not a good cause; it's a desperate attempt to salvage one small part of a quality education for the kids here in Corvallis.

CHS Band Members prepare to work concessions at OSU's Reser StadiumWhen I was in high school in Billings, Montana, I got to do anything I wanted. I took all the classes I needed, elective and required; I was in band before switching to choir; I did theatre, including competition; I did jv tennis (badly). I was on the yearbook, was President of the French Club the year I did not take French. My teachers had time for me when I needed some extra help. In short, I got a comprehensive and enriching education.

My son, on the other hand, can take 14 credits maximum. That means four required classes and one count 'em, one elective. He can do sports, too, if he wants for a price. To participate in WIBC (honor band), he has to help raise around $1,000. (I travelled all over Montana, at no extra cost beyond my parents' taxes, for drama and music events.) Corvallis High, the only school in the state where the pep band plays at all boys and girls home basketball games, something the kids volunteer for with great cheerfulness, will have no marching band this year; the band instructor at CHS is only there half-time and it's just not possible.

CHS Marching Band Summer Camp 2005 - cancelled for 2006Why the disparity between my days in high school and now? There's an easy answer to that question, and it's the one that gets people throwing their hands in the air and screaming: Money. When I was in high school in the early 70s, we had enough money for everything. My folks could afford a big house, skiing, music lessons and instruments, food, doctors, vacations. Granted, we didn't have computers and iPods, but I had a decent hifi, and KOOK-AM played the hits for me 24/7 (just the way Art Alexakis described it). My high school had money for teachers, extra-curriculars and up-to-date textbooks. The country had money for schools, highways, jobs and a war in Vietnam.

We had more than enough money for all of this, for a solid social safety net as well, and the national debt was fairly modest. We had poverty, of course, but the means to deal with it were in place. We had crime, and the Russians (and Chinese) had The Bomb, and we only had three tv channels (actually in Billings we could get Canadian tv somehow, which is how I saw Monty Python long before they made it to PBS).

We had money enough for a rich and varied education system in Billings, and I know that the schools in Corvallis were excellent then, too. And today? Where the hell did all the money go? When did we become a beggar nation, demanding that teenagers provide free labor for a large corporation (Sodexho) in return for school funding taxpayers used to provide? We had plenty of money for teachers and programs thirty years ago; today we don't. How did that happen? How did the richest nation in the history of the world suddenly run short of money for schools? How did we turn our greatest national resource into a second-rate dumping ground for our children's futures?

Back to Margaret Spellings

Secretary of Education Margaret SpellingsFew Americans know who Margaret Spellings is. Some may recall, with a bit of noodging, that she warned PBS not to show an episode of Arthur that dealt sympathetically with real children and their gay parents. Why did her warning matter? Because she is Bush's Secretary of Education. Her job is to set the direction and standards of education in the United States, at least in terms of how federal funds are applied.

Spellings helped write No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and now she administers it. Of course she believes it's almost perfect; it's a tenet of faith in this administration to believe in their own godlike infallibility. After all, they know that God is guiding and blessing their work. Her heritage as a Cabinet-level guardian of the neocon faith goes back to Reagan and his appointment of true believers epitomized by James Watt at Interior. In two-and-a-half years, she will be out of a job and will fade into a well-paid lobbyist's obscurity. But for now, and unless the Democrats can find the will to stand up for the ideals of Jefferson and Roosevelt (and even LBJ, when it comes to the welfare of America's poor), she is the one who will determine how the federal government supports public education. Her decisions will shape the course states can take in running, and funding, their schools.

Fortunately, here in Oregon, we have a Superintendent of Public Education, Susan Castillo, who refuses to cave in to neocon anti-education ideology. Castillo's main concern is the quality of education received by Oregon's kids; her main problem is she no more than anyone else, can provide the quality kids like my son deserve. With the our government spending $11 billion a day in Iraq alone, not to mention allowing the wealthiest Americans to pay fewer and fewer taxes (while gaining more and more of the common wealth), money for schools just isn't available. NCLB, as Ted Kennedy ruefully admits, turned out to be an unfunded mandate.

Are we not glad, however, that NCLB is a near-perfect mandate? Nothing in it needs to be changed because it is accomplishing what was intended: the destruction of free public education in America. If Spellings' goals are realized and that will require that the neocons hold onto federal power, something we should never count out then the rich and powerful will gain the means to move their children out of the public schools via vouchers and tax breaks. Charter schools will turn into quasi-private schools, weeding out those who cannot meet standards that depend on either subservience to christianist beliefs or having a boatload of money. The public schools that remain will become fortresses holding inner city youth until they can be drafted or imprisoned (or impregnated and sentenced to indentured servitude via the welfare-to-work system). Here in Oregon, we'll struggle on until our inability to raise enough kids with a good enough education to maintain a decent economy mean
s that we surrender and give up our own dreams of democracy and free thought.

Granted, I'm bitter. Too many of Oregon's children are getting second-rate educations, not because their teachers and schools do not care or try they do, and fight hard for the right conditions to do their jobs well but because in our society, good things cost money. Teachers cost money; buildings and books cost money; administrators who provide support to teachers cost money (and whatever the government-is-evil crowd says, no organization runs without qualified, and sufficient, administrative staff; just ask the big brains at the Cato Institute when their paychecks are delayed). You get what you pay for, and our country has decided to not pay for education. Not because we weren't getting our money's worth. We used to spend sufficient money on education, and we got exactly what we were paying for: one of the best educated populaces in the world. No more. We want our money to go elsewhere. Our kids just are not worth the expense.

Instead of doing homework, CHS Band members cook Beaver Dogs for freeSo we'll push our kids to spend a long Saturday raising a few bucks at a cramped, hot concessions stand at a college football game. We'll ask them to choose music over theatre with no option for art classes that don't exist. We'll tell them they can't take Spanish this year because there's no room. We'll expect them to take chemistry with 40 other kids and expect their teacher to give them, and five similar classes, the attention each deserves. We'll fill their heads with media-enhanced lies about lifestyles they'll never afford, and we'll entice them to fight in wars based on lies, ignoring their shattered bodies when they come home in pieces. We'll turn over more and more of their future to demogogic leaders and their greedy sycophants. We'll tell them how great our country is but have no explanation when they ask us where is their chance at a decent quality of life.

The answers come easy for a person of wealth and privilege like Margaret Spellings. Choices are blessings when you know, without doubt, that God sets the agenda for the nation. But for those of us who struggle to make a living in this America in which we are less and less welcome, hoping for the chance to give our kids a better life, the words of Spellings and more so her attitude are a heinous betrayal of those who struggled, and often died, to make possible the dream of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for all Americans. As I help my son to achieve an excellence many are trying to deny him, I have a simple message for Margaret Spellings, who believes her education-shattering NCLB is so blessedly wonderful:

Kiss my ass.

— T.A. Barnhart


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