More children (and tax dollars) left behind

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Nov 23, 2005 12:05 AM

Administrators of failing public schools can rejoice. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has come up with a plan that could postpone their final exams -- and save them from flunking out of their jobs.

Spellings announced a new program last week that will relieve public school systems in up to 10 states from current accountability standards under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The new program makes it less likely students will be able to exercise the law's already-narrow school-choice provision that allows those in certifiably bad public schools to flee for the sanctuary of less bad public schools.

The massive investment taxpayers have made in President Bush's NCLB is looking more and more like a dead loss.

When Bush ran for president in 2000, he proposed increasing federal funding for local public schools -- a dramatic departure from the Republican platform of 1996, which called for abolishing the Department of Education. At the same time, however, Bush called for giving vouchers to students in persistently failing public schools so they could attend private or religious schools, instead.

This was supposed to be a payoff for conservatives if they acquiesced in increasing the size and power of a federal agency not authorized by the Constitution.

As soon as Bush was elected, he began backtracking on school choice. The day after he was inaugurated, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card said, "Vouchers won't be a top priority of this administration." NCLB, which Bush signed a year later, did not give students in failing public schools vouchers to attend private schools.

But it did allow students in failing public schools to transfer to other public schools in the same school district.

The system was supposed to work as follows: Each state would develop annual tests to check third- through eighth-graders for grade-level "proficiency" in math and reading. The states themselves would determine what "proficiency" meant. But each would be responsible for ensuring that 100 percent of its public-school students achieved "proficiency" in both subjects by 2014.

To get there, each state was required to set a schedule of "adequate yearly progress" for its schools. In California, for example, only 13.6 percent of a school's students needed to test "proficient" in reading last year for the school to show "adequate yearly progress." But this year, 24.4 percent needed to test "proficient."

If a school failed two years in a row, students would be allowed to transfer. If it failed three years in a row, it would need to provide students with federally funded tutoring. If it failed for five years, it would need to restructure, which might mean replacing school administrators.

But last week, Spellings proposed that schools in up to 10 states be allowed to switch from this system to what she called a "growth model." This means a school would not be judged year-to-year by the percentage of students testing above an objective, state-set proficiency level, but by how many students made some improvement on their own prior performance -- even if they failed to achieve proficiency.

In California, where 44 percent of public schools are failing under the current standard, school administrators are thrilled with Spellings' proposal. "It's a much more realistic measure of student performance," California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell told The Washington Post. "It gives every school, every year, a shot at success."

The lousiest school need only become one of the lousier.

Back when presidential candidate George Bush was pitching school choice, he called that "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Five years into the Bush presidency, American elementary schools, in general, still do a pathetic job on the basics. The recently released results of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests indicate that only 30 percent of eighth-graders scored "proficient" or better in math (up from 29 percent last year) and only 31 percent scored "proficient" or better in reading (down from 32 percent last year).

In a speech last week, Spellings rationalized her dumbing-down of NCLB standards. The administration, she said, is still insisting on "every student reaching grade level by 2014."

But a child now in third grade will be a high school senior by 2014. Democrats may control Congress by 2014. And, who knows? A second-term Democratic president may be maneuvering to shore up her own left-wing base by the 2014 midterm elections.

When Bush was campaigning in 2000, according to the Office of Management and Budget, Department of Education spending was $33.9 billion. In 2005, it spent $70.9 billion. But long before 2014 rolls around, Republicans ought to leave President Bush's education policies and his big spending behind.

The Constitution left control and funding of local public schools to local government. That's where it still belongs.