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A Call for the Repeal of No Child Left Behind

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Steve Novick

Six years ago, George Bush signed a law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), that told the states that every public school student in America would have to meet state standards for proficiency in reading and math, as determined by standardized testing, by 2014. That law said that schools that did not make what the law described as adequate progress toward that goal would face a series of sanctions, the last of which would be "restructuring" the entire school – by, for instance, firing most of the staff, and / or turning operation of the school over to a private management company.

It is no secret that in the past six years, many educators, administrators, parents, and politicians have complained long and loud about the implementation of NCLB. What remains a mystery, to me at least, is why so few members of Congress had the courage and the sense to vote against this law when it was first proposed. For it is, and always should have been, fairly obvious that NCLB was, from the beginning, the domestic policy equivalent of the war in Iraq – a proposal sold on blatantly false pretenses, to fulfill an agenda that had little or nothing to do with the Administration’s stated rationale.

Why do I say that? Well, let’s look at the stated goal of the law: Every child in America must meet state standards for proficiency in math and science by 2014. And yes, they really do mean virtually every child. The Bush Administration has outlined some minimal exceptions, but the law does really mean 100%.

Now, some people have argued that the goal itself was always wildly inappropriate. That the idea that EVERY child should meet state standards by 2014 was always pie in the sky, unless the standards were so watered-down as to be meaningless.

But if you did take the goal seriously, one of the first things you would have done was determine the cost of meeting it. Because, obviously, there will be a cost. You’re not going to get anywhere close to 100% proficiency without reducing class sizes, giving many kids on-on-one instruction, improving professional development programs, experimenting with new curricula and new instructional materials.

If George Bush had come to Oregon, we could have told him that we had already developed a formula for calculating the cost of getting ninety percent of students to state standards. In the 1990’s, a bipartisan commission of very thoughtful Oregonians developed what they called the "quality education model." Today, the QEM tells us what kind of additional investment in class size reduction, new materials, teacher training and so forth we would need to have a good chance of getting 90% of students to state standards in this school year. The answer? About $750 million more a year – to take us from today, when on average about 70% of students meet state standards (with variations by grade and by subject), to 90% proficiency.

Obviously, to get anywhere close to 100% will take a lot more. As any educator can tell you, the last 10% would likely be the hardest. Kids from troubled homes, kids with learning disabilities, kids with severe challenges that will require all the help and support an educator can provide – and even then there is no guarantee of success. It seems safe to say any kind of good-faith effort to get to 100% would have to cost at least another $750 million a year in Oregon alone.

So has the Federal government under NCLB given Oregon and other states the resources to meet this standard set out by the act? Have they given us an extra $1.5 billion in the last couple of budget? No. The entire federal investment in Oregon schools this year is $470 million. In real terms, that’s about a $100 million increase above what the Feds were giving Oregon in the 2000-2001 school year. Put another way, the federal government now provides, total, 9.7% of the funding for public schools in Oregon. In 2000-2001, they provided 7.4%.

Think about those numbers for a minute. We know it would take an extra $750 million a year to get the 90% goal set out in the Quality Education Model - they give us $100 million and say "now hit 100%." They used to provide 7.4% of the funding – they say "we’ll ratchet that up to 9.7%, and in return you have to create Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon: make every child above average, or face the consequences."

Did Bush and his advisors ever really think this would work? It seems unlikely. And Oregon, by the way, is not some outlier; our standards aren’t absurdly high, nor are our students and teachers leading the nation in incompetence. Any state with reasonably ambitious academic standards faces the same kind of problems with Bush’s school law that we do.
So the Bush Administration didn’t really think that they were going to make every student in America above average. What were they thinking? What was their motivation?

I’ll tell you what my mother said at the time. And yes, my mother is, on this issue, a highly reliable source. She was one of the first Head Start teachers. Much later, she got her Ph. D in early childhood education, and became a researcher at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. And when this law was proposed, she said: "The purpose of this law is to discredit and then privatize public education. In 2014, they’ll say: ‘See? Public education has failed. They haven’t made every child above average. So it’s time for vouchers and privatization.’"

Does that sound far-fetched? It shouldn’t. Clearly, the real purpose of this law was not its stated purpose, so what other possibilities are there? This Administration has partly privatized Medicare, tried to privatize Social Security, largely privatized the war in Iraq. In the eyes of George Bush, Dick Cheney and their cronies, the purpose of government is to allow the cronies to make a few, or a few million, or a few billion extra bucks. Why wouldn’t they try it with our public education system?

I’ll tell you one person who wouldn’t think it’s far-fetched: Jonathan Kozol. The stated purpose of this law was to help low-income and minority children. The famous author of "Savage Inequalities" has spent decades as a fierce advocate for those children. And in a recent article in Harper’s, Kozol had this to say about the Bush education law:

Among the various "sanctions" that this highly controversial law imposes upon low-performing schools are two provisions that have opened up these schools to interventions by private corporations on a scale that we have never before seen in the United States.

Kozol points first to the law’s requirement that schools who have ‘failed’ for three years must spend a certain amount of money on ‘supplemental services’ – which, in practice, has largely meant, test-preparation services provided by private contractors. Next, Kozol notes that when schools are forced to ‘reconstitute’ under new management, "it is the profit-making firms, with their superb promotional machinery, that are best positioned to obtain these valuable contracts."

Other people who don’t think my mother’s theory is far-fetched would include everybody who has studied the close relationship between the Bush family and the McGraw-Hill Corporation, and who has read the Inspector General’s report on the conflicts of interest that plagued Bush’s Reading First program, in which millions were steered to McGraw-Hill to buy its scripted phonics-only programs. If the purpose of "Reading First" was to steer money to McGraw-Hill, why shouldn’t the purpose of NCLB itself have been to steer more public money to the private sector? McGraw-Hill, by the way, has also made millions upon millions of dollars as purveyors of tests used in the NCLB regime.

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Steve Novick was raised in Cottage Grove Oregon. Due to failure of a budget levy in 1976, he enrolled at the University of Oregon and graduated at age 18. He then went on to Harvard Law school where he graduated at age 21. After stops in law (more...)
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