With a wink and a nod to his trickle-down constituency, George W. Bush signed a supposedly historic bill Jan. 8 that will supposedly "leave no child behind," supposedly fulfilling a campaign promise to be the "education president." While some conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. disparage the education act as "the Kennedy bill," I question their sincerity. Yes, the bill supposedly reverses years of uncompassionate, in-your-face efforts to dismantle the Education Department. And it is drawing accolades from even the "liberal media": In Newsweek, Jonathan Alter gave the bill an "A-minus," calling it "a big W on the scoreboard for Dubya, and a win for bipartisanship, too."
Don't you believe the bipartisan hype. HR 1 is a profound victory for the opponents of public schools. It is the first step toward dismantling what's good about public education as we know it without fixing what's broken. It will mandate the states to administer expensive annual standardized testing of every public-school student, 3rd to 8th grade, thereby increasing "accountability." The federal government will close schools that can't fix themselves well enough for students to pass the formula tests. It will require schools to rely on antiquated phonetic reading programs at the detriment of more creative and tailored pedagogy. And it requires schools to administer these high-stakes tests to immigrant students in English.
So pardon me if I don't buy the conservative grousing on this one. Buckley wrote in the National Review in August -- while complaining about Bush's education "collapse" -- that "there are two ways to better education -- One is to encourage competitive schooling; another is to mercy-kill bilingual education." Despite its touchy-feeling window-dressing, and all Bush's rhetoric about little kids needing to read, this bill does both.
A mere year ago, Bush's proposed education bill was a blatant attempt to turn education over to corporate America by promoting private-school "choice" a/k/a vouchers. It still is. It's just back a couple chess moves now. And Republicans know it. Per a press release by Idaho Rep. Butch Otter: The bill offers "more choices" -- ah, the C-word -- "for parents, accountability for schools and students, and put[s] more of the decision making back in the hands of the local school boards and parents."
The bill, Otter trumpets, "would lay the groundwork for private school choice." How? A primary goal of the bill is to require that schools classified as "chronically failing" by the federal government be closed. Starting next academic year, as soon as a school is identified as "failing," students in those yucky schools can transfer to another public school (the "education president" originally pushed for private-school transfers), or a charter school (corporate-backed charters like the Edison Project surely love that one). And -- and this is a big and -- these families also qualify for innocuously named "supplemental services." That is, they can get up to $1,000 per child in federal Title I funds -- that is, a voucher -- to use for private tutoring, after-school instruction and summer school. Rep. Otter makes a point that the bill establishes "an important precedent" by allowing faith-based providers to be eligible to receive these federal monies. Translation: Families will get tax money to send their kids to parochial summer schools.
The Bush government is providing some of the money -- $387 million -- to test the schools to see which ones they get to shutter first. But in a superb article in The Nation (Jan. 28), Stephen Metcalf reveals that the testing may well cost from $2.7 billion to $7 billion. This money, he reports, will go directly to corporate test companies, including the Bush family friends who own McGraw-Hill, whose presence and stature in the incestuous Bush policy-making web seems second only to Enron's. For instance, during Bush's much ballyhooed reading and testing push in Texas, McGraw-Hill staffers dominated his pool of advisers. And there's much more; read Metcalf's piece and weep.
But, beyond the Bush family's close corporate ties, this expensive mandate promises to bring hefty heartache to the public schools. Even should testing prove useful in some way, it doesn't take a math genius to figure out that, as the defense budget and Star Wars drains the federal coffers, it will likely end up a largely unfunded requirement. But the states and public schools will be forced to honor it, just like that other unfunded mandate that the Republicans want to disband: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This scheme will ultimately leave the schools even less able to meet their educational demands, probably hastening their move onto the "failing" list of schools that the Bushies can close. Somewhere in there, Republicans hope to get vouchers approved; after all, those suddenly displaced kiddies must attend school somewhere. Corporate America and the Christian Coalition can ride to the rescue.
The only sort-of good news here is that the bill prohibits testing based on federal standards. Now, many education experts argue that the only way this testing scheme could possible make sense educationally is for the same governmental entity demanding the tests to write the tests. Probably true. And sure, some of these united states could use learned, balanced federal education standards ñ- like, say, the set Dr. Lynne Cheney defeated back a few years because they weren't white and manly enough ñ- but I sure don't want this evil-thirsty administration telling schools what those standards are. All said, I'd rather we take our chances on the states.
Lest you think this testing move is about making US kids smarter, note that private schools and home-schoolers are fully exempt from testing requirements. In The Nation, Metcalf says that Bush's plan "emphasizes minimal competence along a narrow range of skills, with an eye toward satisfying the low end of the labor market." Drawing their cheap labor from the public schools, I might add.
Republicans are also thrilled that the education bill promotes English fluency and immersion by requiring that all students be given their tests in English after attending school for three years. The bill eliminates a requirement that federal dollars support programs that use a child's native language in classroom instruction.
Bush, it seems, is especially proud that the bill contains his Reading First proposal for students through the third grade. The bill calls this new federal instructional mandate "scientifically based": the laymen's term is "phonics." That is, US teachers now must stick to repetitive sounding-out exercises rather than use a combination of techniques depending on the students' needs -ñ you know, the same program they use in conservative Christian academies to, let's say, keep students thinking in key. Brilliant way to keep good teachers in our public schools, eh, should that actually be a goal of this administration.
Meantime, little-to-nothing in the Bush agenda will help cure the real culprit behind poor reading skills: poverty. (Just ask the non-stakeholder researchers.) In response to Bush's new budget proposal, the Children's Defense Fund points out that, so far, his economic plan has benefited the richest 1% of Americans. The same money could have paid for Head Start, child care and health care for all young Americans who need it. CDF President Marian Wright Edelman says Bush's "Leave No Child Behind" mantra is empty: "his money is not where is rhetoric is."
Perhaps the Department of Education put it most honestly in a Jan. 10 press release: The new law "will change the culture of America's schools." Score another one for compassionate conservatives: They're on a roll.
Donna Ladd (www.donnaladd.com) is a Packard Future of Children fellow in Jackson, Miss. Write her at email@example.com.