CHICAGO – The letters were sent in August. Hundreds of thousands of parents received the news. Their children were going to failing schools.

The new federal law, No Child Left Behind, is wreaking havoc on public schools. “No Child,” which passed with bipartisan support in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, is the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s program to dismantle public education. The law demands that districts track student performance through Department of Education approved tests. Test scores are divided into “subgroups” based on ethnicity, race and income along with other categories, such as limited English speaking children and children in special education. If fewer than 40 percent of a subgroup fails to pass the test, the whole school fails. The rate will go up to 50 percent next year.

In Illinois alone, 574 schools were labeled bad or the nicer sounding “in need of improvement.” That is 20 percent of all public schools, involving some 410,000 children.

What’s a parent to do when they receive such a letter? No parent wants their kid to go to a lousy school. So parents look on the list of “higher performing” schools or “good” schools and try to hustle their kid into one of them.

But the problem is the “choice” promised to them by the law turns out to be merely another Bush administration “exaggeration.” In Chicago, there are about 270,000 students in the “failing” schools and only 1,097 slots in the “good” schools – a situation being repeated everywhere. About 19,000 students applied for those 1,097 slots. This kind of ratio is being repeated across the country.

Waters Elementary, one of 365 Chicago schools put on the government’s “bad” list, is a bilingual, neighborhood school on the city’s north side. With dedicated teachers and staff, community and parent involvement, Waters school is a nurturing, learning environment for some 570 children in grades K-8. To create that environment, it took years of careful tending – like the community garden that grows adjacent to the cement playground.

And what happened along the way? The standardized test scores had improved as well.

But all of that was trashed with the government’s failing list.

One parent whose child goes to Waters told the Chicago Tribune that her daughter cried when she learned she had to go back to the school. “I felt awful because I didn’t want her going to Waters, but there isn’t anything I could do,” this mom said.

“They have taken and ripped up everything this school stands for,” Tomas Revollo, Waters School principal, told the World. “Teachers were very positive and now their morale is shot.”

At a recent meeting of the Local School Council, Revollo told of how children in the bilingual program, who are still learning English, were forced to take the test. It’s not that children with limited English or those in special education are not tested, or their academic progress is not measured. There are measurements and tests for kids in these programs. It’s just these measurements are not approved by the Bush administration.

Revollo charged that it is racist to force children, who are learning English, to take such a high-stakes exam. “That’s discrimination and there should be a lawsuit,” he said.

Revollo, who has 30 years of experience in public education, calls the Bush-inspired law “the worst thing that has ever happened” in education, and sees “No Child” as paving a path for vouchers and other far-right privatization schemes.

Revollo also said “No Child” should be seen in concert with other administration policies.

“The president asks for $87 billion for Iraq using our passion and patriotism to get more money. We better wake up – there are less jobs, an immigrant like me can get arrested on the spot, there’s less funding for education and soldiers are asking ‘how long’ do we have to be [in Iraq],” he said.

Revollo isn’t alone in his anger. There is a growing recognition enveloping whole school districts – large and small, urban and rural – that the public was sold a bill of goods with “No Child Left Behind.”

The intent of the law – “to improve student achievement” – is admirable, but single test scores are not a fair measure, National Education Association President Reg Weaver, wrote recently. Weaver also placed the issue of funding “No Child” in the context of the current state budget crises.

“The administration proposes a cut of $1.2 billion for K-12 schools while imposing additional mandates. At the same time, from coast to coast, cash-strapped states are laying off teachers and other school employees, and cutting student and teacher programs,” Weaver said.

Or as my third-grade daughter told me, “You lied to us, Bush.”

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org

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