Reforming education against all odds

Posted: Mar 11, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Some critics of President Bush's policy regarding elementary and secondary education have an alternative. It is: Let's leave lots of children behind.

The No Child Left Behind Act was passed overwhelmingly by the House (381-41) and Senate (87-10), but now liberals see that NCLB expresses essentials of Bush's conservatism. Democratic presidential candidates have denounced it as a ``federal intrusion'' in state and local affairs -- everyone knows how much liberals dislike such intrusions. Howard Dean, that perfect indicator of liberal passions, seemed to think that if tests reveal that many schools are failing their children, then drastic changes must be made to the ... tests.

Yes, the tests can be improved, and schools should have somewhat more latitude regarding disabled students and those whose first language is not English. But many complaints about NCLB are not about marginal or easily adjustable matters.

Teachers unions recoil from accountability and resent evidence that all is not well, or that whatever is wrong cannot be cured by increased funding of current practices. But per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, is three times what it was 40 years ago, and the pupil-teacher ratio is 40 percent lower, yet reading scores are essentially unchanged.

Middle-class parents, who are often mistakenly complacent about the quality of their children's schools, dislike having their complacency disturbed. Twenty states denounce NCLB as, among other things, an ``unfunded mandate'' because they will need to spend money to rectify revealed shortcomings. But as they correctly insist, primary and secondary education -- and their shortcomings -- are primarily their responsibility: federal money is just 8 percent of total spending on grades K through 12. Besides, they can escape the NCLB intrusion if they are willing to forgo the federal intrusion they covet -- $24.3 billion that flows from Washington for NCLB.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, says that since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1994, states have been required to set standards and begin testing. But only 11 states were in compliance by 2001. Boehner says that between 1995 and 2001, whenever states said the requirement was too burdensome, Bill Clinton -- he billed himself as a ``real education president'' but actually was the teachers unions' president, which is different -- gave them waivers.

Twenty-eight percent of the nation's public schools (about 26,000 of 91,400) have been found to have not made ``adequate yearly progress.'' To those who say it is excessive to require 100 percent of a school's students to reach certain goals, Boehner responds: What number would you substitute? Ninety-five? ``That means you can throw 5 percent of the children overboard.'' His is the right spirit, but perhaps a, say, 95 percent requirement would allow reasonable latitude. There would, however, be pressure to lower it to 85 percent, on the way to ...

The danger is that standards have the perverse effect of triggering a ``race to the bottom": States such as South Carolina that set high standards -- and had 62 percent of its schools fail to make mandated progress last year -- will face sanctions as a result of high standards. Note this: States are required to set their own criteria for identifying ``persistently dangerous" schools, from which any child will have a right to transfer. By California's chosen criteria, the number of such schools in the state is: 0.

Federal money -- the 8 percent lever -- is large enough to change what must be changed before anything else can be: the subject. Answering the question ``Is Bush a Conservative?" in Commentary, Daniel Casse of the White House Writers Group notes that a major theme of Bush's governance is ``deconstructing domestic-policy monopolies (Medicare, Social Security, teachers unions, etc.)." And NCLB, although flawed, ``has succeeded in changing the terms of debate."

``For years," he writes, ```progress' in education was measured by the expenditure of ever more federal dollars and the appeasement of Washington-based pressure groups." Today the argument is about standards -- how to measure and meet them -- and how much autonomy schools should have in doing so. That is progress that will not be easily reversed, partly because it is popular with a constituency, the inner city poor, that Democrats often abuse in order to mollify a rival constituency, the teachers unions.

An aide to John Kerry says, ``He wouldn't in any way back away from the commitment to accountability." It took decades to defeat liberal resistance to welfare reform. Resistance to education reform is crumbling more quickly.