Illustration by Ken Patterson
In all four presidential/vice presidential debates, the moderators failed to ask a single question about public education and the candidates' views on President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education reform act, passed in January 2001. The candidates themselves tried to insert points about NCLB in answers to other questions—Bush, for instance, said his education plan was an alternative to raising the minimum wage—but no substantive discussion of public education, and how the presidential candidates differ, occurred.
Perhaps this means that the candidates either agree on the need for NCLB—after all, Kerry voted for it—or that Kerry does not have substantially different ideas about public education. Not exactly.
As the realities and goals of the NCLB act become clearer in Mississippi and across the nation—revealing a growing list of "failing" schools and students, and teachers being driven away from public education—more and more educators and citizens are starting to question the act.
"One of the main goals of the act is to decrease class size, to have fewer students per teacher," said Michael Spring, an educator of 10 years organizing against NCLB. But, he asks, how can you do that when NCLB's rigid teacher-certification standards, not to mention frustration with constant testing, means fewer teachers in public schools.
The 2004 election "is not just about defending the country, it's about being the country," he says, explaining one of the reasons why he and many other educators and concerned Ohio citizens held a "Rally for Children Left Behind" rally at the Ohio Statehouse earlier this month in one of the tough-fought battleground states. Above all, Spring says, they were motivated by the belief that public education—the backbone of democratic society—is being eroded by the No Child Left Behind Act.
NCLB, the hub of George W. Bush's platform on education, also appears to be one of the president's weakest points as he vies for reelection. Its promise is simply not being kept, especially in poorer districts. Wealthier schools are doing fine, while the poorer schools are taking a huge hit. Across the nation, teachers and parents are growing weary of the many adverse consequences that seem imminent in Bush's education system. The long-term impact of these inequalities is one of their main concerns.
John Kerry's job, if he is to successfully blast through Bush's "rhetorical firewall" on this key issue, as Springs calls it, is complex. On one hand, he and Edwards seem compelled to respond to the opportunity for reform that the NCLB Act represents, by promising to make sure it has full funding. (In 2004, NCLB was under-funded by more than $26 billion. The Bush administration's 2005 budget allocates $24.9 billion to elementary and secondary education, more than $9 billion less than NCLB authorizes.) On the other hand, though, it might make more sense at this point to drop Bush's Orwellian rhetoric completely and make it entirely clear that Kerry and Edwards offer a responsible and viable alternative for America's educational system.
Essentially, NCLB requires every state to implement standardized testing, or, to use Bush's preferred term, "assessments," which has had a drastic effect on not just schools' budgets, but their cultures as well. All students in grades K through 12 are to be tested at regular intervals throughout their elementary and secondary educational career. NCLB also goes a step further, however, and extends the concept of assessments to schools themselves, which the Bush platform persistently euphemizes as "demanding accountability." This means that schools can now also "fail." And since NCLB "demands accountability in exchange for the record levels of federal spending now going to K-12 public education," it follows that any school that "fails" its assessment will have its funds cut. But perhaps the worst consequence is that any curriculum that doesn't produce direct results in the "assessments" mandated by NCLB is now seen as trivial. Schools with little funding for programs in non-core academics are slashing spending on arts and physical education classes, in order to focus on the preparation for and administration of tests that are mandated but not fully funded at the federal level. In short, NCLB contributes to a de facto monoculture, as schools are forced to commit a majority of their resources to militant preparation for their many "assessments."
‘Just Tough Love'
What happens to students whose schools "fail"? Under the original language of NCLB (which shows its intent better than anything), private-school vouchers would have been made available to students to transfer out of "failing" schools, taking tax money directly out of the public school system. Under the amended language—edited to get Democrats to go along with it—families are still given "choice" to transfer out of "failing" schools, but only to other public schools if they're available. If not, though, vouchers for private schools can still be awarded, and they can be used now for remedial services. Many see this as a piecemeal approach to getting full private-school vouchers. Such a voucher system would disproportionately punish children from poor families, since federal vouchers aren't likely to be enough to cover all of the costs of private schooling, and children from poor families who live in poor communities are the most likely to go to a school that can't meet their educational needs.
Examined closely, NCLB can be seen as an effort to privatize education and get far more students attending private and religious schools where they're more likely to be taught conservative values. In any case, the act tends to make our educational system reflect the disparity of the distribution of wealth in our society. And the most obvious effect, so far, is to take the resources away from the kids who need it most and give them to the ones who need help the least.
The cause of these effects is not merely negligence, but the conservative view of education as a primary means for disciplining children (and the schools they go to) through shame and punishment. (Bush's education secretary, Rod Paige, has actually called "shame" the "strongest weapon for reform." He also once called a union representing elementary and secondary school teachers a "terrorist organization.") This is why the monoculture promoted by NCLB-mandated assessments is no unforeseen accident: It is designed to deprive poor communities of the means for providing their future citizens with rich, meaningful educations. In the conservative world view, this is just tough love.
What Would Kerry Do?
"Solutions for problems of No Child Left Behind" are offered by a Kerry campaign press release. In stump speeches, he promises to "ensure that No Child Left Behind works for schools, states and teachers by rewarding those who meet higher standards and rewarding schools that turn around and improve." While it might be too late to divorce himself from Bush's language completely, Kerry's vision for America's education system seems based on an entirely different set of values. His education plan is built on sustainable ideals aimed at expanding public education and providing the highest standards possible for cultivating America's younger generation.
Notice, for instance, that even while using the phrase No Child Left Behind, Kerry's platform concentrates on rewarding schools and students for their successes. Accordingly, rather than cut funding from schools that don't perform at "accountable" levels, Kerry proposes to "offer extra help to schools that are falling short, rather than leaving troubled students behind."
Bush sees education as a means for teaching children discipline through punishment and fear of failure, Kerry sees education as a means for extending opportunity. The Kerry-Edwards National Education Trust Fund would be set up to "ensure that new education programs authorized by Congress will be funded on a mandatory basis." Creating a fund designated solely for public education, a responsible thing for a democratic government to do, would mean broader prosperity, since all public schools would be guaranteed resources.
Many policies and programs that Kerry proposes would help integrate America's educational system and the communities of which they are a part. A Kerry administration would make "early education available and affordable for every American child," just as the Early Learning Opportunities Act of 2000 proposed. This would provide equal access to educational resources at the most crucial time in children's mental development, which "gets kids ready for school, and in later years cuts crime and increases job productivity," as Kerry points out.
Kerry's administration will also allow the federal government to issue $24.8 billion in school modernization bonds "to help states and school districts repair and build modern schools." This, coupled with the promise to recruit 500,000 teachers over the next four years, means Kerry knows how necessary it is to provide enough teachers and suitable public educational facilities.
The implementation of Kerry's "School's Open ‘Til Six" initiative would not only give students after-hours tutoring, but would also provide a safe and nurturing after-school environment. Naturally, "School's Open ‘Til Six" is also designed to help parents of students. This program would contribute directly to many Americans' quality of life, in the short, as well as long, term, with schools and communities working together in raising our young; Kerry has promised to provide for that need.
Kerry's success on Nov. 2 depends on whether or not he can demonstrate that he is truly committed to these principles and not merely crafting rhetoric. Bush's record—especially on education—speaks for itself. NCLB has created havoc in communities all across America, manifesting in the phenomenon of "excellent failures": schools that perform at the top of their state's standards but are deemed failures according to the federal standards handed down in NCLB. We can't predict the consequences such confusion and mistrust will have on the future of education, but we can choose this November to reinvest in our public schools and control the damage.
Mark Spring doubts that NCLB, and the way it has been implemented by the Bush administration, will provide for a democratic education. He doesn't believe it guides young people to be what we all have a right to be: adequately equipped citizens of the U.S. "We don't believe that shame is the best way to motivate people," he says. "A challenge—which is what the No Child Left Behind Act is and should be—a challenge shouldn't feel like a threat. It should feel like a shared opportunity."
Michael Gaworecki writes for Wiretap (wiretapmag.org). Additional reporting by Donna Ladd.
The Candidates on Education
• Supports private-school vouchers.
• Pushed "No Child Left Behind" through Congress in January 2001, increasing education costs 43 percent.
• Then underfunded NCLB by $28 billion, leaving funding gap for school districts.
• Punishes "failing" schools with closing.
• Has not funded special-ed mandates.
• Voted for "No Child Left Behind."
• Also supports full funding of NCLB.
• Wants to measure students and schools on more factors than test scores.
• Proposes National Education Trust Fund to ensure federal mandates are funded.
• Wants to recruit 500,000 new teachers.
• Wants after-school tutoring for students.