PHILADELPHIA – This year marks the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education – a historic civil rights legal case that declared Jim Crow segregated schools for African American children were a violation of the Constitution. This 1954 Supreme Court decision and the civil rights movement helped to revolutionize public education in a more democratic direction.

Fifty years later public schools face severe assault from forces of privatization, profiteering, racism and state funding formulas that help to maintain “separate and unequal” status for schools with a majority of Black, Latino and low-income families.

But no policy has helped to undermine public education more than the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB).

NCLB is the Bush administration’s national policy for education “reform.” The law is the underpinning for changing the public education system in every state. Initially bipartisan, its effects are being debated throughout the nation with a growing chorus of opponents – Democrats, independents as well as Republicans.

Two years after President George W. Bush signed NCLB and promised billions of dollars for education reform, critics of the law are calling it an “unfunded mandate” and a setup for failure that will lead to the dismantling of public education and to governmental support of private and parochial schools.

Ironically, NCLB is a reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) passed in 1965 as the result of pressure from the civil rights movement for equal access to education for African Americans. ESEA’s Title I provided funding for special programs and support for poor children.

NCLB has formally retained the concept of the federal government’s financial responsibility and guiding role for education. For example, it mandates that the “achievement gap” – the gap between wealthy and poor students, between white and Black, between students proficient in English and those who are not, and between regular students and special education students – be closed by 2012.

NCLB mandates that 100 percent of all students in the United States be proficient in reading, mathematics and science by 2012. It also mandates that a highly qualified teacher be in every classroom by 2005 and that the rate of attendance and the high school graduation rate reach 95 percent or above.

Most Americans would support these goals. The question is, “How do we accomplish them?” It’s here where NCLB comes up short.

Under NCLB, the Department of Education requires every state to submit a plan with yearly goals and a timeline showing how it will reach the goals by 2012. The Department of Education can accept or reject the plan. The schools in each state are expected to reach the yearly goals set forth in the state plan, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Standardized tests are the only means of assessment. Federal funding is tied to AYP. However, all school districts, schools and students do not start at the same level of proficiency. How, then, can all students be expected to reach a common level at a certain time? The rate of improvement should be the primary consideration, but it is not even a factor.

In U.S. schools today, an enormous amount of money and time is devoted to testing, record-keeping and reporting. Teachers are forced to teach in a way that will help their students pass standardized tests and, therefore, make “adequate yearly progress.” If they don’t pass, then the teacher, the students and the entire school will be labeled a failure. This is NCLB’s way of holding educators “accountable.”

Because family income is the factor most related to academic achievement, school districts with large numbers of poor students will always be penalized under NCLB rules. The law says students who need help must be given after-school tutoring by the state, but the funding for this has been cut drastically.

The strange reality is that every state’s plan is different and every state’s reporting system is different. One school district can be labeled a failure while another is labeled a success, even though students in both districts are academically performing at the same levels. Schools are not credited for the improvement they make from one year to the next. Special education students and students who are not proficient in English must take the same tests that all the other students take. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has promised to make changes in this area, but even with those changes, the requirements are too rigid.

Another strange feature of NCLB is the absence of mandates for proven methods of education reform, such as smaller class size and comprehensive preschool education. Smaller schools with smaller classes provide a better learning environment for students. Smaller schools are safer because the staff personally knows every student in the school.

Funding is not provided for building new schools, nor is there adequate funding of preschool programs. Get Set (a comprehensive preschool program for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds) and Head Start (for 5-year-olds) were very successful in the 1960s and 1970s, helping to close the education achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots.

During the last two decades, however, political ideology has changed the focus of education reform from solving the problems caused by poverty and racial discrimination to setting formal benchmarks and demanding educator accountability.

Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, NCLB has raised the standards/accountability focus to a higher level, and has established severe sanctions for failure, but evades coming to terms with the chronic inequities in an educational system beleaguered by class and racial injustice.

Schools that meet yearly goals and make AYP are classified as “successful.” If a school fails to meet its yearly goals and does not make adequate yearly progress, then that school receives a warning and is placed on one of the lists of failing schools – the “needs improvement” list. If a school fails to make AYP a second year it is placed on the “troubled” schools list and the school district is required to send a letter to the parents of each student informing them that the school has failed to make adequate progress and that they may apply for a transfer to a successful school in the district. It does not matter if there are not enough spaces in successful schools for all the students in the failing schools.

Paige has said, “Lack of space is not a reason for denying students entrance to successful schools.” When asked if students could be transferred from failing city schools to successful suburban schools, Paige said it was a possibility if the two school districts could work it out.

If a school fails to make AYP for five years, the school may be closed or restructured, which means the staff is fired and new staff is hired. Or the school may be turned into a charter school and become a separate entity from the school district. Another alternative would be privatization. A private educational management organization (EMO) could be hired to run the school.

Bush has declared that he wants Congress to pass a national voucher bill. At a conference of parochial school educators, Bush promised to work “as hard as I can” to get a voucher bill passed to help students have a “choice.” He was talking about helping parochial school students, not students in the failing schools.

At the end of the 2002-03 school year, large numbers of school districts and schools were labeled failures. Florida had 87 percent of its schools on a failing list. More than 52 percent of Pennsylvania’s schools failed to make AYP. In Delaware, 10 out of 12 districts were labeled failing. Even schools formerly noted for academic excellence were sanctioned if their special education students did poorly on standardized tests, which they should never have been forced to take in the first place.

The morale in thousands of schools has declined because of the publicity surrounding their failing status. There is a rebellion growing in the state legislatures against NCLB, which demands much but doesn’t provide the funds to do the job.

President Bush promised to make education reform a priority during his administration, but the cuts to the education budget for 2005 are huge. Funding for NCLB is $9.4 billion less than what Congress authorized. In the 2002-03 school year only one-third of Title I students, the very neediest, were served. Some 38 programs that serve at-risk, poor students are being eliminated. Among them are Early Start, a preschool program; drop-out prevention; drug abuse prevention; training programs for new teachers and paraprofessionals; grants to reduce class size; money for technology and media services; and money for additional counselors.

Vocational education will be cut by $316 million. Special education funding was increased but it will be only 50 percent of what is needed. Child care block grants to the states for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families remain frozen, which means many mothers in “welfare to work” programs will not have quality child care. Higher education has also been cut. Pell Grants are frozen at $4,050 maximum, 33 percent of the average college cost. An estimated 170,000 eligible needy students did not attend college this year because of lack of funds.

Even before the recent cuts, National Education Association President Reginald Weaver called NCLB the granddaddy of all under-funded federal mandates. The Ohio Legislature conducted a study to find out how much it would cost to implement NCLB. Ohio would need an additional $1.4 billion per year.

As seen by his budget, education is not a Bush administration priority. Its priorities are war, homeland security and tax cuts for the rich and the corporations. In spite of the cuts to the NCLB budget, Congress passed a $50 million “Choice Incentives Fund” and doubled funding for charter schools.

To see where NCLB is heading, we need only look at Bush’s Department of Education. Secretary Paige was the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District when Bush was governor of Texas. He was praised by Bush for the district’s apparent progress in spite of severe cuts to the school budget. Yet studies show that, under Paige, Houston high schools had among the highest dropout rates in the nation. Paige, an African American, used his education background and the language of the civil rights movement to assist Bush in getting NCLB passed in Congress. He recently slipped up and called the National Educational Association “terrorists.”

Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok, who seems to hold the real power in the department, headed the Pennsylvania Department of Education when Tom Ridge was governor. Together they planned the state takeover of the Philadelphia schools with the intention of hiring Edison Schools, Inc., to manage the entire district. Because of protests, only 40 schools were privatized, but Philadelphia schools have become the experiment for NCLB sanctions. The lowest performing schools have been reconstituted, privatized and turned into charter schools, yet the students in these schools are performing no better than similar students in regular public schools.

Hickok has been a longtime advocate of vouchers but was unable to get a voucher bill passed in Pennsylvania. He oversees the multimillion-dollar discretionary fund for his department. This budget was increased in spite of budget cuts. Hickok uses these funds as grants to right-wing organizations supporting vouchers and privatization.

From 2001 to 2003, $77.76 million was given to the following groups: Education Leaders Council, National Council on Teacher Quality, Center for Education Reform, K12 (co-founded by William Bennett, Reagan’s secretary of education), Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options, and Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). By diverting tax dollars allocated for public education to organizations that support private schools, vouchers and privatization of public schools, while underfunding NCLB, the Bush administration is setting up public schools to fail.

How can we expect the U.S. Department of Education to work diligently to improve education for all students when its leadership does not believe in public education?

Richard Riley, secretary of education under President Bill Clinton, has pointed out that there has been much progress in education in the last two decades. Twenty percent more students graduated from high school in 2002 than in 1982. The increase was greatest for African American and Latino students. In 1979, about 49 percent of high school graduates went to college but 63 percent went to college in 2000.

Public school students score higher in math and science than do private school students. Twice as many students are taking advanced math and science classes. “The real improvement has come from the states,” said Riley.

Still, the National Urban League’s report, “The State of Black America,” says the gap between poor Blacks and “middle class” Blacks is widening at an alarming rate. Unemployment in the Black community is more than twice that of the national average. The cuts in the NCLB budget eliminate or cut educational programs for all poor children. The ones who have the least need the most in order to close the gaps in achievement.

NCLB needs many changes. The first change should be full funding for quality education for all students. There cannot be democracy without an educated citizenry.

Rosita Johnson is a retired teacher and an activist in the struggle to save public education in Philadelphia. She can be reached at phillyrose1@earthlink.net.

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