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NCLB Outrages

Fodder for Reform's Cynics, and a Blot on Bipartisanship

Ohanian Comment: Freedman oversimplifies the quarrels of both the left and the right against NCLB, but I admit to supporting both the left and the right on this. What he calls bipartisan center, I call corporate cronyism.

TWICE upon a time, or at least twice within the past dozen years, an American president issued the audacious promise to solve a seemingly intractable social problem. To do so, each of those presidents embraced some of the most cherished beliefs and policies of his partisan opposition. A coalition straddling the normal chasm in Congress passed the resulting legislation.

The bills that those presidents signed into law were simultaneously utopian and humanly flawed. They promised absolute results. They lacked sufficient money to achieve them, at least in the view of many critics. Yet they served as a kind of enlightened shock therapy, challenging the pervasive, almost blithe acceptance of an entrenched underclass.

One of these measures was the welfare reform act that Bill Clinton called for during his first race for the White House, when he vowed to "end welfare as we know it." That bit of intemperate oratory ultimately took the form of a Democratic president appropriating the traditionally conservative Republican view that welfare had become for too many poor people a permanent condition, and that a variety of financial incentives actually made low-wage work less attractive than the dole. As of last fall, eight years since the law was enacted, welfare rolls had shrunk by more than half.

The other measure, years later, was the No Child Left Behind law that President Bush championed. It, too, represented in many ways a concession to ideological foes, because it acknowledged the longstanding premise of liberals that the quality of public schools varied drastically according to race and class. By uncoupling himself from the Republican orthodoxy that all failure is individual failure, that there is no such thing in America as structural inequality, President Bush's bill won the co-sponsorship of no less a liberal than Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

How distant, how unreal, that fact seems now, three years almost to the date from the signing of the bill. With last week's report by USA Today that the federal Department of Education had paid the columnist and radio host Armstrong Williams $250,000 to promote No Child Left Behind, particularly among fellow African-Americans, the Bush administration has dealt the latest blow to what looked not so long ago like a welcome example of bipartisan common sense in a fiercely divisive era.

"The Education Department has done so many things to turn would-be allies into opponents," said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of educational policy for the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington research organization with a neoliberal Clintonian bent. "This has created a golden opportunity for the law's critics."

Let us call the Williams contract by its true name: a bribe. And let us note that it was uncovered only several months after the Department of Education admitted to having poured $700,000 into creating public-relations television segments about the education law that were meant to be slipped on air as if they were genuine journalism.

No one can benefit from these escapades in spin except for those on the right and left flanks who have reasons of their own for loathing No Child Left Behind - the right because the law increases Washington's role in local education, and the left because the law dares to insist on standards and accountability based on standardized tests, the bÍte noire of progressive educators.

No one loses more than the centrists and moderates, including the blacks Mr. Williams was supposed to persuade, who saw even in an imperfect law some essential elements of education reform. Chief among these is the law's requirement that schools separate test scores by race, which means shining the harsh light of accountability on the deficient performance of many schools in teaching minority pupils. And regardless of frequent complaints from Democrats during the last presidential campaign that the law remained billions of dollars below "full funding," the federal government has increased aid to education during the Bush years (albeit partly because Congress increased the president's budget requests).

William L. Taylor, a fixture in several major civil rights organizations, said he had listened with chagrin as Democratic critiques of No Child Left Behind, often echoing the platform of the National Education Association, began to sound increasingly like efforts to blunt its impact. The Armstrong Williams bribery report, he went on, only gives aid and comfort to those foes, though they lack a plausible alternative of their own.

"It will increase the cynicism," said Mr. Taylor, who chairs the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a private bipartisan group. "The administration has simply shot itself in the foot, and for no good reason."

He continued, "The thing that worries me most is that this law is only going to work if the people who are in the system - teachers, administrators - can become believers and see the positive side, rather than see it as a law that's out to get them."

The signs are not especially good. Polling last fall by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington research group that focuses on African-American issues, found that 23 percent of blacks rated No Child Left Behind as good or excellent, while 67 percent called it fair or poor. (The corresponding figures for all respondents, regardless of race, were 32 and 56.) The last time the center took on a survey on the welfare reform law, in comparison, fewer than one-fifth of blacks deemed it a failure.

"With the welfare law, there was evidence that it was a success," said David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the center. "People aren't seeing the proof that No Child Left Behind is a success."

INDEED, the vaunted reform of public schools in Houston, which helped propel Rod Paige from superintendent there to federal secretary of education in Mr. Bush's first term, turned out to have been based on cooked books - specifically the number of high school dropouts.

Both the $700,000 campaign of pseudojournalism and the payoff to Mr. Williams reflect at bottom an insecurity in the Bush administration about what real journalists will find in real schools. Which is again self-defeating, because, speaking from experience, I have seen salutary effects from No Child Left Behind in districts as disparate as Topeka, Kan., and Gainesville, Ga.

"If anything, this makes reporters more suspicious of No Child Left Behind than they were before," said Mary Jane Smetanka, president of the National Education Writers Association. "I mean, if they have to bribe someone to promote it --"

She did not need to complete the sentence for her meaning to be apparent.

E-mail: sgfreedman@nytimes.com

— Samuel G. Freedman
New York Times
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INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES


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