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The Bush Election and Education

Ohanian Comment: The author calls for "real grassroots organizing by liberals and progressives" to resist President Bush's likely push for more of what he pushed in his first term: testing, underfunding, vouchers and charter schools. I would suggest that liberals and progressives need to learn how to talk to conservatives. They have a lot in common on issues of federal interference on education policy and content. Rather than demonize all conservatives as unmentionables, let's find out issues on which we can agree.

While Massachusetts voted 2-1 and Brookline voted 4-1 for John Kerry, the country split, with Bush winning slightly. It's a bit disheartening for me and, given the results in Brookline, for many readers of this column.

This is so for many reasons, but let's focus how the election may affect education.

First, it was unfortunate that education, a key component of our democracy, was all but ignored in the campaign. Even though there were immediate issues, such as war and the economy, education, as a foundation of our freedom and responsibilities, should always be one of the top discussion items.

Second, it's interesting to note that while many people talk of "blue states" and "red states," all the states are purple, ranging from Utah's 71-26 vote for Bush to Massachusetts' 62-37 vote for Kerry. All the rest of the states are in between, with many pretty much evenly split. Of the 31 states in which the majority voted for Bush, the incumbent won nine with less than 55 percent (representing 103 of his 286 electoral votes). Support for Bush is not as strong as some would like us to believe. However, it appears Republicans will behave as if the election results were a landslide.

So where does that lead us in education? In his second term as president, Bush is likely to push for more of what he pushed in his first term: testing, underfunding, vouchers and charter schools. Even though education was not a factor in the election, I'm sure the re-elected president and the Republican Party intend to spend the political capital Bush arrogantly thinks he earned on his educational initiatives.

Bush has proposed to increase testing under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, often mislabeled "No Child Left Behind"). Teachers use tests to assess both their students' learning and their own teaching. However, we use tests as only one gauge among many. ESEA puts way too much emphasis on testing - many times to the detriment of real education, as too much class time is used to test rather than teach, as resources and priorities are shifted to this single task, as curriculum is narrowed to align to the tests, as classroom activities are geared to test questions, as we lose the flexibility of going into depth in certain areas, as drop-out rates rise and as everyone in the school community becomes obsessed with the scores.

We currently have a battery of tests in grades three (English only) through eight and one set in grade 10. Bush proposes to add a third-grade math test and a series of new tests in ninth and 11th grades. As more tests are given, the problems with testing increase. Because the rules of ESEA are written with schools needing to make unreasonable improvements among six different subgroups in each subject area, schools will now have many more ways to fail.

As things stand, ESEA is underfunded by about $1 billion annually. With more testing and higher bars to pass, the amount needed will grow, and underfunding will get worse unless even more money is provided, which seems unlikely. Bush plans to make current tax cuts permanent and add more, which will lead to cuts in education funding or increased taxes on our children as the deficit continues to soar to record heights.

Bush's new Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings, does not have vouchers and charter schools as top priorities, and some Republicans have voiced disappointment with her nomination. If they believe their own hype of a landslide, they may be emboldened to inflict more fiscal damage on public schools by diverting federal funds away from traditional public schools and into vouchers and charter schools.

Of course, being an eternal optimist, I think it's important to look at the bright side of the election results. While it is difficult to see any bright side at the national level (except the beginning of real grassroots organizing by liberals and progressives), the results in Massachusetts bode well. Governor Romney poured millions of dollars into House and Senate races, hoping to gain at least seven Republican seats; Democrats gained three! Perhaps we will be buffered from some national education policies. In the meantime, the 2008 campaign is only three years away.

Philip Katz, a regular TAB columnist, is president of the Brookline Educators Association. He can be reached at phil_katz@brookline.mec.edu.

— Philip Katz
Brookline TAB


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