Newspapers over the week-end printed stories on President Obama's push to revamp the federal government's involvement in public education. It amounts to rescinding No Child Left Behind, one of the dumbest laws ever composed, which required 100% of children in a school to perform at grade standard (as measured in annual computerized examinations) in order for that school to receive federal aid.
Practiced in the art of wiggle room, of course, our President did not refer to scrapping the law outright, but instead of revising and revamping. However, he hopes the bill he endorses can come up with a new name. Read between the lines.
This is a much more important effort, and much more achievable, than the required health insurance (bad idea)/public option (might be workable COBRA-style)/taxes pay for abortions (are you kidding me?) law. However, the vision for repealing No Child Left Behind was third page news in the papers I read.
President Obama still seems to think, and newspapers still seem to agree, that he was elected to advance his agenda. In fact the independent voters who propelled him to power are ambivolent to most of it. What we want is peace, a refurbished global image (everywhere except in Gaza, where we couldn't give a rip what they think since they think that electing a Hamas government is a good idea), and a return to the kind of fiscal common sense that characterized the centrist Clinton Administration. Repealing No Child Left Behind is a step in the direction of common sense. It is doubtful that anything coming up to replace it will make things worse in the sphere of public education.
The past two to three years have been a nightmare for public schools. To begin with, the pressure of the NCLB's steepening standards led to whole-sale firings of school staff and administration. Experienced principals and deans have borne the brunt in my area, as the ones most exposed politically by the law and its measurements. Meanwhile the increasing levels of unemployment combined with the equity crash in housing has caused tax bases throughout the nation to erode. Districts are reducing staff, cutting enrichments and services and increasing class sizes, all of which run counter to the trends that bring improvement in student performance. In Kansas City, nearly half of schools will be moth-balled, according to widely-reported accounts from a week earlier.
I am hoping that the President's leadership on this matter is brought about by the patent absurdity of expecting every special needs child and every English as-a-third-language pupil to be conforming to college entrance standards by 2014. Whatever the President thinks, the timing for repeal is right. Administrators, bureacrats and law-makers across the spectrum are now realizing that with the cuts they have to make, efforts to achieve NCLB standards are impractical. Right. Like NCLB would have worked before but now things have changed. Sure.
What concerns me is that underneath the coming repeal is this idea: Rescind the law because we're all broke, and let the kids suffer in classrooms where 35 are packed in for every teacher. But the teachers will put up with whatever, because they are the ones lucky enough to have tenure.
I do not blame the teachers in any of this, and I never have. I feel lucky to have a job right now, too.
Some deeper questions need to be asked, but I do not expect President Obama to be the one to ask them. Are district-oriented revenue schemes based on property taxes really the right way to fund a public education? If jurisdiction should be re-assessed, how far does that reach? What, if any, is the federal government's proper role? What can we learn from achievement models in other countries, and when we learn from them, what lumps of humility and compromise will I need to swallow as one with a Libertarian bent? Those of us who associate school spirit with the tradition of marching bands, baton twirlers, and sports trophies, will we learn from other nations that not every college-prep high school needs its own football team and live stage theatre, and that some programs and facilities are better organized by park districts and towns?
Tough choices in public education still lie ahead. But at least some dumb ones are about to be revoked.