Article published in The Roanoke (VA) Times
WASHINGTON — “Mandatory Funding for Schools — No Questions Asked.”
That bullet point tops a list of priorities in the education plan Senator John Kerry recently unveiled as part of his Democratic presidential campaign.
Candidate Kerry proposes stashing federal funds in a National Education Trust Fund to ensure that “for the first time ever, the federal government meets its obligation to fully fund our education priorities.”
According to Kerry, “any new education program Congress authorizes will be automatically funded by law.” Neither Congress nor a future President would be able to restrict the flow of money.
Education spending on autopilot, no questions asked? Is that the stance of an education reformer seeking bang for the education buck?
In 1998, Kerry sounded very much like a Massachusetts liberal who was fed up with public education’s resistance to change and who wanted real reform.
In twin speeches in the Bay State and in Washington, D.C., the 1998 Kerry blasted public school systems that are “imploding upon themselves,” bedeviled by “bloated bureaucracy” and “stagnant administration.”
Risking the wrath of the teacher unions, Kerry urged that officials “end (teacher) tenure as we know it,” the better to facilitate the firing of incompetent teachers currently sheltered by those unions.
Moreover, Kerry condemned the existing teacher certification system as “an absurd anomaly” resulting from a “convoluted monopolistic structure.”
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) notwithstanding, overthrow of the education establishment has not occurred in the past six years. That being the case, is it rational to promise an obese bureaucracy and the teacher cartel automatically full-funded budgets “no questions asked”?
Kerry’s plan attempts to capitalize on widespread complaints that President Bush has shortchanged NCLB because appropriations have fallen short of congressional authorizations.
Protests from many local and state officials ring sincere, because it is a formidable task to set up annual reading-and-math testing in grades 3-8 and then to bring those who fail up to par. Nevertheless, much of the outcry orchestrated in pursuit of “full funding” by the National Education Association, the 2.7-million-member teacher union, is phony. Here’s why:
First, Congress rarely appropriates money for social programs at the authorized level. Such a shortfall occurred with Goals 2000, the Clinton Administration’s education program of the 1990s. The NEA did not holler that Bill Clinton was shortchanging little children. Nor did Kerry.
Second, since Bush signed NCLB into law in January 2002, federal funding for Title I, the main program of aid intended to end the achievement gap for disadvantaged children, has increased 42 percent. How many taxpayers have had a 42 percent increase in their income since 2002?
In a recent speech in California, the 2004 Kerry did try to preserve one part of his 1998 reformist message. The Senator said as President he would require school districts to pay heed to “how a teacher’s students perform academically.”
Unfortunately, that hint of support for merit pay sorely alarmed the NEA brass, which insists that all teachers be paid to scale, whether they help their students or not. Soon they arranged a private meeting with Kerry to make known their ire. According to a memo from NEA president Reg Weaver, they secured a promise that Candidate Kerry would no longer embrace “pay for performance.”
If that’s true, it’s too bad. In his earlier assessment of K-12 education, Kerry showed the instincts and spirit of a reformer.
Now by endorsing automatic spending increases for more of the same, he seems to be trying to placate the single most powerful apostle of the status quo in education.
Kerry would do more for his candidacy by sticking to a consistent message about what’s needed to improve the quality of teaching for all children, even if that advocacy irked Big Education’s vested interests.
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