Article published in The Roanoke (VA) Times
The National Education Association and its political allies have launched a campaign to emasculate No Child Left Behind, the new version of the 38-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act that President Bush signed into law last year with strong bipartisan support.
Should everyday Virginians give a hoot if the 2.7-million-member teacher union succeeds in using its war chest, which brims with $1 billion in dues extracted annually from the nation’s teachers, to sabotage NCLB? After all, many previous federal enactments in education have been expensive flops, and Tenth Amendment conservatives believe the federal government has no Constitutional role in education.
Yes they should care. Here’s why: NCLB is not immune from the Law of Unintended Consequences, but it is different from prior versions of the ESEA. For the first time, it seeks to give parents options when their children are ill-served by schools receiving federal aid aimed at closing an achievement gap defined so long by race and poverty.
The NEA and other education organizations loved the most recent incarnation of ESEA – Goals 2000, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994. Why? It favored Big Education interests like the NEA, not everyday Moms and Dads. Goals 2000 sought to prescribe national goals and set up a top-down structure for overseeing them. But the achievement gap actually widened during the 1990s and none of the eight National Goals was met.
By contrast, NCLB strives to put information about school performance in local hands and to give local parents options other than accepting continued failure.
The NEA’s pitch in the attack ads it is now rolling out is that NCLB imposes a “one-size- fits-all” approach on children. That’s brazenly hypocritical. The NEA, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, have staunchly opposed parental choice in education wherever it has been proposed. One size with no opting-out suits the NEA just fine.
NCLB requires annual testing in grades 3-8 to determine how students are progressing in reading and math. School districts must break down the data for subgroups of students according to race/ethnicity, income, disability, and limited fluency in English. When schools fail to make adequate progress overall and for any of the subgroups for two consecutive years, affected parents are entitled to a choice of another public school or private tutors.
Although NCLB allows states to select their own tests, officials in Virginia and elsewhere have complained about being held to account so soon for testing at least 95 percent of students, and have whined about schools being deemed NCLB-deficient if students in just one subgroup fail to make adequate progress.
The one-word answer to that is: tough. Through the first three decades of ESEA, the nation spent more than $150 billion on closing the achievement gap, and received essentially nothing in return. One logical response would be to shut down the U.S. Department of Education, but public opinion has rejected that approach. That leaves the option of building accountability for results into the system.
The shame is that state and local bureaucrats in Virginia and across the nation are doing so little to help low-income parents understand their rights under NCLB. For example, Richmond Public Schools sent parents a lengthy letter explaining NCLB in turgid educationese and giving them mere days to apply for a transfer. No schools were identified by name. Parents missing the deadline would be out of luck.
Moreover, the Richmond schools’ website offers parents no information about what may be their most valuable option – using a portion of their federal subsidy to purchase private tutoring services to help their children catch up.
The NEA and its allies also claim that NCLB is grossly underfunded. Virginia Governor Mark Warner recently chimed in with a gripe about insufficient funds for the Old Dominion.
To the contrary, a report by the nonpartisan General Accounting Office shows that Virginia received $990 million in federal education funding in fiscal year 2003, an increase of $220 million since President Bush signed NCLB into law. Moreover, while the cost of increased NCLB-mandated testing in Virginia schools through 2008 is estimated at $43 million, the state is slated to receive $56 million for that purpose from Washington.
The problem isn’t money. It is the commitment to real change in education.
Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.
Find Archived Articles: