Amistad Academy, in New Haven, Conn., has made the news with exceptionally high test scores in reading, math, and science. Nearly all of the 250 students are Black or Latino at Amistad, a public charter middle school funded by the state of Connecticut. Eighty-five percent of the students qualify for reduced school lunches. Yet their scores surpassed the results in wealthy suburban districts.
Recently, Education Secretary Rod Paige made a grandstand appearance at Amistad Academy to tout George W. Bush’s NCLB, the No Child Left Behind Act. Paige is one of the tiny group of right wing African American elites in the Bush administration. Paige is also infamous for his assault on the National Education Association (NEA) as “terrorist” because it criticized NCLB. The NEA is the nation’s largest school employee union.
In his speech at Amistad Academy, Paige tipped his hat to the goal of overcoming the achievement gap between African American and white students. However, he went on to give a bait-and-switch performance. He assigned the main credit for high test scores to George W. Bush and his seriously flawed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. In contrast, most agree that the students’ achievements were the result of their highly-motivated hard work, enriched curriculum, extended school day and week, and close attention by licensed teachers.
In fact, The New York Times reported earlier this month that newly released federal data clearly show that children attending charter schools are, as a group, performing about a year and a half behind their counterparts in public schools in both reading and math.
Paige’s propagandizing for Bush is not surprising. In his May 2004 column “Paige’s Circle” in the Department of Education’s newsletter, Paige anointed Bush as the successor to Brown vs. Board of Education. In Paige’s words: “with No Child Left Behind I believe the president and the Congress have taken the country one step closer to a race-free society. And with each step we get closer to fulfilling the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.”
Paige’s “race-free society” resembles the “color-blind society,” of right-wing sociologist Abigail Thernstrom. Both try to divert attention from the real racist conditions and the need for affirmative action. Nor is it accidental that Paige and Thernstrom are both apostles of school vouchers.
Paige attempted, in his speech at the Amistad Academy, to sanitize the $8 billion in underfunding of NCLB-mandated programs as well as shortfalls in educational aid to the states. He argued that Amistad Academy spends less and gets better results than the New Haven public schools. But Amistad is a public school funded by the state of Connecticut to the tune of $7,500 per student.
NCLB and Bush’s education and tax policies have deepened, not lessened, the crises of public education. The budget crisis has forced the layoff of teachers and vital support staff, closing down of schools in Baltimore and Norwich, Conn.
NCLB inflicts punitive cuts in the funding of public schools that do not meet unrealistic 100 percent results in standardized tests, a built-in formula for failure. A recent study by the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University of the first year of NCLB (2002-2003) found that sanctions under the act fall especially hard on urban schools with large racially oppressed populations, while demanding less of rich suburban schools.
Sneaking in vouchers
By using a punitive de-funding approach to public education under NCLB, the Bush administration is then able to re-route public funds for vouchers for private and religious schools. Paige has dipped into a $5 billion voucher fund to bankroll private and religious schools, activating the voucher/privatization elements of NCLB.
Superintendent of New Haven Public Schools Reginald Mayo captured this corrosive feature of NCLB when he said, “The No Child Left Behind Act to us is a sneaky way of easing in a voucher program in this country.” Under Paige, more than $75 million in federal education funding has been diverted to a handful of pro-voucher groups over the past three years, according to People for the American Way.
In February 2003, Paige’s Department of Education sent out a warning, according to Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose in their recent book “Bushwhacked.” Schools could lose their federal aid if they do not allow time for “constitutionally protected prayer.” This cut in federal aid would be at the expense of Title I aid to the poor. Another memo warned schools could lose federal funds if they did not test recently arrived immigrants for proficiency in English.
Why Bush attacks public education
What is the root of the Bush privatization assault on public education? The well-informed Ivins and Dubose provide some insights. Then-Gov. George W. Bush, as an obedient servant to Texas and U.S. big business, got on the educational bandwagon because big business wanted better-trained personnel and wanted to control public schools in their own corporate interests.
Rod Paige fits into this syndrome as Houston’s then-Superintendent of Public Schools. He latched on to something the corporate heads could understand — high test scores as “evidence” of reform.
Ivins and Dubose show how Paige assured high test scores at the 10th grade level. In cold blood, he kept 9th graders with lower test scores from entering 10th grade. The result was a large-scale dropout rate of 9th graders and artificially higher scores by the 10th graders who remained. This was a case of “cooking the books” that brings to mind Enron, another Houston enterprise. Still worse, thousands of 15-year-olds were pushed out of school with little hope of ever finding a job.
The Houston Chronicle reports that Texas has the nation’s highest school dropout rate. “The dropouts became absolutely necessary because what they are trying to do is get the test numbers up, not improve the education of the children,” charged Rice University professor Linda McNeil. And The New York Times reported June 25 that Paige’s closest associates in Houston are resigning amid charges of crony ties to businesses that won profitable contracts with the Houston school system.
The privatization target is the entire pro-people, pro-labor public sector, including Social Security, Medicare, public health programs, and federal government employment. The attack by the Bush White House is coordinated. So is the broad coalition fightback. Struggles gain strength by mutual support, not only upholding the public sector and its workers, but also expanding it to meet the needs and rights of working families and the American people, from living wage jobs programs to a national health service. That struggle at home gains mutual strength by solidarity with the related struggles of people around the world for sovereignty, higher living standards, health, the control of their own resources and world peace.
In his speech at Amistad Academy, Paige was eerily silent about vouchers and privatization, the essence of NCLB. Since then the Republican Party has announced that Paige will be a prime-time speaker at the Republican National Convention. While this rewards Paige for his troubadour role and gives him an opportunity for an encore par excellence, it joins the issue for voters. They do not have to be silent on NCLB, Bush, Paige and the future of the country and world. They can make themselves heard on Nov. 2.
George Fishman is a retired public school teacher.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE DO YOUR TAX DOLLARS GO?
The average household in the United States paid $6,548 in federal income taxes in 2003. Here is how that amount was spent:
Military and Defense: $1,928
Interest on the Debt (Military): $618
Interest on the Debt (Non-military): $677
Income Security: $296
Veterans’ Benefits: $233
Natural Resources: $117
Job Training: $29
National Priorities Project, www.nationalpriorities.org