Unfinished business: from Brown to NCLB and beyond

Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court’s watershed Brown v. Board of Education decision set the precedent for an assertive federal role in American public education. The issues of quality and equality have been on the national agenda ever since.

At times, such as during the mid-1960s, strong people’s movements led to notable victories, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). At other times, right-wing forces have succeeded in diverting public attention and focusing the debate on issues such as busing and school prayer. The current assault on public education has its roots in the Reagan years and the appearance of the report “A Nation at Risk,” which right-wing forces have used for the last two decades as a basis for undermining public education.

The recent federal legislation known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) starkly illustrates the continuing intense struggle over federal education policy. In 2002, faced with the popular demand for increased federal support for locally impoverished urban and rural school districts, the Republicans in control of Congress and the White House compromised but did not abandon their policy goals.

The name “No Child Left Behind” was hijacked from the slogan of Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund, “Leave no child behind.” The legislation, a “bipartisan” effort, was written so that its actual effect would depend on who had the power to enforce it. Two years after its passage, NCLB’s effects have triggered a growing outcry from a wide range of critics, including Republicans, Democrats, and local and state education authorities forced to deal with the law’s requirements and its consequences. Actually written as a reauthorization of the 1965 ESEA, the new law, critics charge, is an “unfunded mandate” which emphasizes punishment and sanctions rather than support for local school districts.

For example, the law requires that local school districts meet strictly defined goals in student achievement over the next decade, and meet ironclad deadlines. All students in the U.S. are to be “proficient” in math, reading and science by 2012. In addition, the law requires closing the “achievement gap” between African American and white students, between those proficient in English and those who are not, between wealthy and poor students, by that same year. Each state must submit a plan to the Department of Education including yearly goals and a timeline showing how its schools will reach the goals by 2012. In addition, each classroom is to be staffed by a “highly qualified” teacher by 2005, and attendance and graduation rates are to reach 95 percent.

Who can disagree with such lofty goals? Is it not a giant step forward to have the federal government behind them? But the question being raised from coast to coast by educators and education advocates is, how do we reach these goals and what role will Washington play in giving support? Here is where NCLB, as it is currently being implemented, comes up short.

The objections being raised concerning the NCLB basically fall into four categories.

(1) Standardized testing is virtually the only measure of a school’s success. The pressure to raise test scores in reading and math at every grade level puts intense pressure on districts and teachers to “teach to the test.” In order to reach “proficiency” in the required areas by the appointed time, some schools and some districts must of course make much more progress than others. When districts require that students spend additional time during each school day on the tested subjects, other areas of the curriculum suffer. Across the country today, increasing amounts of time and money are devoted to test preparation, testing, record keeping and reporting scores.

(2) The consequences of failing to meet goals may hurt more than they help. Failure to make “adequate yearly progress” can result in measures which are likely to disrupt a school’s established program and wipe out any progress the school was making, and which are unlikely to have a positive effect on the educational program or the test scores. For instance, the law allows the state to replace the entire staff of a “failing school.” The National Conference of State Legislators estimates that 70 percent of U.S. schools will be subject to sanctions by the end of the decade. The nation’s limited experience with state takeovers of such schools or districts has yielded mixed results at best, generally saving money, but not raising test scores or improving schools by other measurements.

For example, the School District of Philadelphia, the largest yet to experience a state takeover, faces an immediate future of extreme uncertainty. Forty-five of the district’s 260 schools are now under some form of private management, and only widespread public outcry has kept that number from going higher. At the same time, a Republican Legislature has blocked Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s ambitious increases in the state’s education budget.

(3) The law, as NEA President Reginald Weaver has suggested, is “the grand-daddy of all underfunded mandates.” Although President Bush promised to make education reform a priority, the federal budget clearly shows that he has not fulfilled this pledge. While financially strapped states and local districts are forced to cut and scale back programs, funding for NCLB is $9.4 billion below what Congress authorized. This shortfall has devastated crucial federal programs. During the 2002-2003 school year, only one-third of Title I students, the very neediest, were served. Some 38 programs that serve poor and at-risk students are threatened with elimination, including Early Start, a preschool program; training for new teachers and paraprofessionals; grants to reduce class size; funds for technology and media services; and funds for additional school counselors.

What this means at the state level became clear when the Ohio Legislature commissioned a study to determine the law’s cost. It found that that state alone would need an additional $1.4 billion per year to implement NCLB.

(4) The Bush administration is spending money that undermines public education. For example, the $50 million “Choice Incentives Fund” encourages the establishment of voucher plans and/or charter schools. Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok oversees the department’s Discretionary Fund. Despite cuts in other areas, the budget for this fund was increased. It provides grants to right-wing organizations supporting vouchers and privatization. From 2002 to 2003, over $75 million went to groups such as the National Council on Teacher Quality, the Center for Education Reform, and the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation – groups that support school vouchers and privatization.

Critics of NCLB have charged that the administration’s actions speak louder than its words and that it aims to set public education up to fail. Such critics (including our nation’s teachers unions, strong defenders of public schools) have come under fierce attack by the Bush administration, symbolized by Education Secretary Rod Paige’s outrageous characterization of the National Education Association as “a terrorist organization” last February. The Bush administration’s statements have only added insult to injury.

A forward-looking federal education policy would, at the very minimum, aim to:

• Fund schools at a level sufficient to provide a high-quality education for all children, with guidelines for effective student-to-staff ratios and a floor through which no child would be allowed to fall.

• Break down barriers that artificially separate groups of American youth from each other, including geographic barriers, such as those separating city from suburban youth, or racial barriers, such as those separating African American from white youth.

• Provide America’s youth with an understanding of the diverse nature of the peoples of their nation and their world, of the contributions that different peoples have made to building our nation and the nations of the world, and of the historical and continuing destructive influences of racism and bigotry in society.

Truly, our children are our future. The task is to ensure that serious education reform becomes a major issue in this year’s campaign. In this most crucial election year we can do no less.



Ben Sears is a Philadelphia high school teacher. He can be reached at pww@pww.org. This article is based on research by Rosita Johnson.