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Education association tells Bush to leave ’em behind

Commentary by Paul Greenberg

May 18, 2004


The Arkansas Education Association chose to welcome George W. Bush the other day by urging the president to leave children behind.

Naturally the AEA’s spokesman didn’t use those exact words. His boilerplate criticism of the administration’s No Child Left Behind Act concentrated on the wrinkles that need to be ironed out in the law, not the whole fabric of accountability it has finally given American education.

The AEA certainly didn’t take aim at John Kerry, who’s going to be its candidate come November, and who voted for the No Child Left Behind Act before he started running for president and needed the union’s endorsement.

This act is a favorite target of the president’s critics — although parents who want to see their children do better tend to like it. At last they have a tool to demand that schools educate their children, not just warehouse them.

This act does apply much the same standards to able and disabled children, which is unrealistic, but that section is already being altered administratively. The act as a whole has been good for American education.

In some respects the testing required by the law isn’t exact enough, rather than being too tough. Individual students should be tracked through the system, not just the same grade (with different students) tested from year to year — as the National Education Association itself has noted.

But what do facts matter when the object is to bash the president?

To the teachers union, the No Child Left Behind Act has become not the name of a law with good and bad aspects, but just a general term of opprobrium.

When you try to pin down critics of the No Child Left Behind Act you get some answers, but not very good ones. For example:

• NCLB is imposing financial burdens on school districts! Ah, yes, those dreaded un-funded mandates. But it costs maybe $20 a head to test students, which is about the only thing the law requires of all schools, and federal aid to school districts has increased, on average, $300 a student over the past four years.

• NCLB is going to shut down schools! Not anytime soon, and then only those schools that badly need shutting down — the ones that have failed generations of students. Only if a school doesn’t meet minimal standards two years running can its students choose to attend another in the district.

• The administration isn’t providing enough money to help failing schools! Actually, if a school gets a failing grade three years in a row, its students are entitled to special tutoring and other extras. There’s now federal money to pay for all that, and more will be appropriated as more long-failing schools are identified.

Let it be noted that, however much Kerry may criticize the Bush administration, he can still speak some home truths about education. In a speech before unionized teachers at a San Bernardino, Calif., public school, the senator came out for raising teacher pay. No news there.

But then he said that most increases should go to teachers who have distinguished themselves in some way — by working in tough schools, for example, or being able to teach needed math or science courses. What’s more, said Kerry, teacher pay ought to be based, at least in part, on how much improvement the students show. Wow! That’s accountability. That’s merit pay. And those are fightin’ words to the NEA.

How do I know? Well, when Kerry told the union members, “I believe we need to offer teachers more pay,” he got a big hand. But then he added, “And we must ask more in return. That’s the bargain.”

The response? Dead silence. A revealing silence. It said more about this teachers union than any press release could.

Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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Okay, for those who think no liberal can ever concede anything good about the Bush administration:

I applaud the spirit and intent of “W’s” No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative. Sometimes it takes a little federal muscle to get local authorities to do what is right--it took the federal government to force the South out of the Jim Crow era of state/local government discrimination, for example.

However, federal money is only a drop in the bucket of what it costs to run a decent education system these days. Educational systems are nearly universally under funded and it will take a tremendous amount of money to correct the problem. Already many systems are debating the relative economic impact of rejecting the little bit of federal money they might get from meeting NCLB standards versus the tremendous amount of money they will have to come up with locally/statewide in order to meet those standards.

[Just one example that many Alabama systems are struggling with: Getting teachers to upgrade their credentials in order to rate as a “Highly Qualified Instructor” under NCLB automatically means paying them more because of those added credentials, and many Alabama systems can’t afford to give the majority of their teachers that kind of pay raise. Federal money isn’t nearly enough to cover it and the federal government earmarks most of its money for special programs like tutoring anyway, not for regular teacher salaries. So the school system finds itself in a “Catch-22” since federal NCLB guidelines mandate a certain percentage of highly qualified instructors in the school.]

To really fix education, local and state taxpayers are going to have to come off their pocketbooks and vote for more local education taxes, something they seem determined to oppose. Setting high standards and talking about fixing the problem is fine, but setting high standards when the resources are not there to meet them is an exercise in futility.

I don’t know if there is any way that the Feds can force local/state taxpayers to increase their own financial contributions. Even if they could, people would then yell bloody murder about big government and federal interference. But there is nowhere close to enough federal money available to accomplish everything NCLB dreams of.

So I applaud Bush’s goal and intent. Making it a reality will take more than merely setting standards in Washington without considering the realities of available resources, however.

And before anyone calls me on it, yes, I also agree that accountability is a key component in the equation and a legitimate gripe to taxpayers. However, I think many voters/taxpayers use “accountability” as just an excuse to cover up their basic greed and cheapness.

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I don't think you're going to see very many people willing to open up their already strained pocketbooks any further to give to schools until they see some fundamental changes in the way things are run and structured. The teachers union is its own worst enemy in this situation because they are the very roadblock to change and real progress that makes giving the schools more money untenable. When the union learns to stop sacrificing what's best for schools at the altar of fighting tooth and nail for teacher jobs and status quo, I think we'll see some progress.

Maybe there needs to be a "parent's union" or a "student's union" to lobby Washington and state governments. At least then the concerns of ALL the people involved in the schools would be heard.

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Here's whats wrong with schools: PARENTING or the lack thereof.

If the parents don't care the student won't care.

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