The Issue Left Behind
Rarely has federal education rhetoric had such great impact on the schoolhouse. Aside from policy requiring equitable education of all children--black children, disabled children--education decisions have remained mainly local and state matters. When Ronald Reagan extolled the virtues of school prayer, school systems did not rush out and buy Bibles, and when Bill Clinton praised school uniforms as a possible panacea for violence and truancy, there was no run on plaid skirts. But since the passage of No Child Left Behind, three rounds of annual testing later, the daily rhythms of school have been wholly recalibrated. Some teachers have been replaced by "data specialists," who study spreadsheets in a futile attempt to determine why students haven't passed the tests. In the rush to prepare for reading and math exams, children are denied not just recess and music but also social studies and science. They write stilted, empty essays to impress graders who search for the proper transition words and not for a point. Beloved longtime teachers get letters in the mail that tell them they have gone from experienced to unqualified, literally overnight, with a rewriting of the rules.
And classroom methods long believed to work are tossed out in favor of those that a few selected groups have "scientifically" tested and approved, which often force teachers to read from scripts the entire class period. (Who's determining what's approved? In the case of Bush's multibillion-dollar reading grants, a panel that includes many people with ties to various commercial curriculums but very few actual teachers and no experts in children's literature, according to one analysis.)
You won't hear these concerns in the national conversation on education, nor in Kerry's campaign. While Kerry differs strongly from Bush on the high-profile, small-impact issue of school vouchers (he is against, the President for), his record indicates--and aides confirm--that his support for the basics underlying No Child Left Behind is longstanding and firm. In the candidate's home state of Massachusetts, a demanding accountability movement has long been in place. In the primary season Kerry offered some tentative criticism of the law, suggesting, for example, that it could turn schools into "testing factories"--the language as well of the National Education Association. Since then, though, he has muted his criticism, as one Bush adviser pointed out approvingly.
Even if a candidate did have big problems with No Child Left Behind, it would be risky to speak out against it. "You've got a lot of elected officials out there who do not want to look like they don't support an education policy," said Scott Young, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislators. "This is almost a lose-lose situation for any education official."
The tacticians on the right have again masterfully shaped the debate, the same way they suggest that voting against Bush is equivalent to taking up arms for Al Qaeda, or informing teenagers about condoms is equivalent to giving them oral sex lessons. "The true purpose" of last month's mobilization, said John Boehner, the Ohio Republican, was to "lower education standards."
"The minute you begin to criticize the law, people think you don't care about improving student achievement," said Patti Harrington, state schools superintendent in Utah. Or, worse, they say you're racist. The law's accountability provisions focus on the scores of not just students in general but also those in various racial and ethnic groups. If enough children in one group fail the test, their entire school fails. When the Pennsylvania superintendents announced their protest--in particular, saying that special education students and children who don't speak English should get extra help on tests--the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Ron Tomalis, counselor to Education Secretary Rod Paige, said it was "a bit of an irony on this day in particular that we would hear those statements." It was the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.
Until the debate is radically reframed, politicians will continue to gain from saying little, and to offer more additions than subtractions, as Kerry has done. And despite his modest education agenda, Kerry still won the endorsement of the NEA, which doesn't like the law but even more doesn't like a Republican in office.