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No Child Left Behind? Don't Believe the Hype

It sounded like such a good idea. The year-old federal No Child Left Behind Act was sold to the American people as a means of bringing about public school improvement through higher expectations of all children and new requirements for accountability.

Sadly, the devil is in the details. Our school communities should actively question the hidden consequences, unspoken agenda and hypocrisy of the act.

It calls for annual testing of our students from third to eighth grade and throughout high school. Results must be broken down by demographic categories, including minorities, low-income, special education and limited-English students. In every school, all of these groups must register ''adequate yearly progress'' until 100 percent test proficient by 2014--a statistical impossibility. If any of these subgroups show ''inadequate progress'' for two years in a row, regardless of how well the majority of its students are doing, and regardless of the statistical reliability of test results, the school must be labeled ''in need of improvement,'' popularly understood as ''failing.'' In that event, its low-achieving students must be offered the option to transfer to a different school at the receiving school's expense and whether or not the receiving school has room. These are just a few provisions of the legislation.

The law also creates an unprecedented challenge to student privacy by requiring every high school receiving federal aid to turn over the names, addresses and home phone numbers of all juniors and seniors to military recruiters. Although the law allows parents to withhold their students' information, in practice this option has been little publicized and rarely put into effect.

Finally, the hypocrisy of the slogan ''No Child Left Behind'' is starkly exposed by other Bush-Cheney proposals affecting families and children. At a time when state governments are facing a devastating financial crisis, the federal government has refused to help them maintain funding for Medicaid, the only medical safety net for millions of impoverished families with children. The latest federal budget includes cuts that would eliminate thousands of children from Head Start, a program known to enhance children's academic achievement as well as providing nutrition and medical care. The administration also plans to convert HUD's Section 8 program, a system of rental vouchers for low-income families, into underfunded block grants to the states--a measure certain to increase the already staggering number of homeless children.

As if all of the above weren't enough, the administration has just alleged on questionable evidence that many ineligible children are receiving free school lunches. They have proposed another unfunded mandate--this one requiring school personnel to investigate the family income of every participating child. Past studies have shown that when families of free lunch recipients are hassled, many are scared away from the program although most were actually eligible. Not only would this measure increase the number of hungry schoolchildren, it is also a back-door assault on the already minuscule federal aid to our schools. Funding for many, programs, including Title I for academic help to impoverished children, is calibrated to the number of students qualifying for free lunches. Most schools can ill afford further cutbacks at a time when they are already reeling from a bad economy, reduced state aid and the complex unfunded requirements of No Child Left Behind.

What can Americans do to mitigate the damage caused by this misnamed legislation? Speak up. We should add our voices to the chorus of state governments and school districts that are already protesting and/or refusing to carry out all provisions of an intrusive, unfunded mandate. If we don't want public school resources siphoned off to a voucher system, we can tell our legislators. Parents should ask for, and school authorities should provide, a transparent accounting of what the federal law will cost their district, how it will be paid for, and what programs will have to be sacrificed as a result. School personnel can do their best to guard student privacy and help families cope with requirements such as additional paperwork to qualify for school lunches. We must all remind our legislators that schoolchildren can't fulfill their potential when they are sitting in class hungry, suffering from untreated medical problems, or wondering where their families will sleep that night. Kids need our support both in and out of the classroom if No Child Left Behind is to be more than an empty slogan or a cynical ploy.

— Linda B. Burke
No child left behind? Don't believe education reform hype
Chicago Sun-Times
April 19, 2003


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