No Child Left Behind

by Andrew Hanauer | 11/12/03 6:00am

In Molly Ivins' scathing book on George W. Bush's Texas, "Shrub," there is a chapter that stands out from the rest. Amid the accounts of Bush's unsavory political connections and the train wreck of a criminal justice system he oversaw comes "The Bright Spot: Bush and Education." Indeed, education was supposedly one of the cornerstones of Bush's compassionate conservatism; the bi-partisan No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was hailed as a triumph. Unfortunately, the term "bright spot" is no longer applicable.

No Child Left Behind attempts to lift up American school children through testing and standards; it seeks to hold schools accountable for the progress of their students. This strategy is well intentioned, but the end result is disaster. "Using government-mandated tests to reform schools is certain to fail," states a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) study. "It will lower educational standards, increase inequalities and deepen the nation's racial divide."

Bush claimed that the bill had a precedent for success in Texas, but the UWM study claims "a look at the results in Texas is sobering." Indeed, one of the administration's big claims to fame was the supposed success of Education Secretary Rod Paige's Houston school district, of which he was superintendent. Dropout rates seemed to be phenomenal look, said the administration, at what the compassionate Bush conservatives can accomplish! Turns out, unfortunately, that the dropout rates actually went through the roof during Paige's tenure; only Houston officials went to great lengths to conceal the truth.

One more problem with No Child Left Behind: it was never fully funded. The National Education Association reports that there is a $1.2 billion funding gap in the bill, leaving NCLB as nothing more than a giant, un-funded mandate. Which means either school districts will be left painfully short of the funds needed to implement the changes made by the law, or the funding gap will be covered by state and local government, resulting in soaring property taxes.

There is an alternative to Bush's Texas and Bush's America: Howard Dean's Vermont. Dean, who calls NCLB the "No School Board Left Standing Act," implemented accountability in Vermont that worked, in part because he insisted on funding it. He also stressed early education, and passed the "Success by Six" legislation that led to reduced child abuse rates, legislation he would expand to the national stage if elected president. Bush likes to pose with small children for publicity, but refuses to stand up to Republicans in Congress who continually underfund the highly successful Head Start program. Currently, it reaches only 60 percent of low-income preschoolers.

If elected, Dean has also pledged to fund fully the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which would remove the burden of funding special education from local school districts. Again, it would save cities and towns from choosing between livable property taxes and well-funded education.

Dean understands a very fundamental concept: education is not an isolated issue. When teenagers are pregnant, that affects their education. When children are abused, that affects their education. And so he took numerous steps to change the lives of Vermont's children outside the classroom that had a positive impact on their success in school. Under Governor Dean, teen pregnancy rates dropped 49 percent. Vermont's "Welcome Baby Visits" ensured that 89 percent of pregnant women were visited by a social services worker in the first trimester of the pregnancy, and this community-based approach is carried over after the child leaves the womb. Programs like NCLB do nothing to address the root causes of education failure.

Only 29 percent of 25-30 year olds had a college degree in 2002. Of those who did graduate, the average debt upon graduation was $17,000. Tuition costs have risen 40 percent in the past 10 years. The Bush Administration has responded in typical form, by not giving the money needed to Pell Grants, which provide federal support for undergraduates. According to the American Council on Education, 84,000 students may lose their Pell Grant money completely in 2004-2005. Another 1.5 million students will face monetary reductions. "This is another example of the administration talking a good game about education but failing to deliver on its promises," said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT).

Indeed, as it turns out, although Ivins gives Bush credit for some of his attempts at improvement in Texas, her use of the term "Bright Spot" was intended somewhat ironically. She quotes one member of the Texas legislature as saying, "almost everything he (Bush) claims credit for was done before he came in."

We can do better than this.

This Thursday, at 9:45 a.m., Howard Dean will be here at Dartmouth (at Alumni Hall) to unveil his proposal for improving higher education. Come find out what this country could be like if it was governed by substance and not slogans. If it was governed by somebody who understands that leaving no children behind takes more than a standardized test and a photo-op.