Are funds left behind for schools?
By Guy W. Farmer
Even though I’m supposed to be a “right-wing ideologue” (according to at least one Appeal letter-writer), I have serious reservations about President Bush’s No Child Left Behind public education policy. While I endorse the overall objective of improving public education by making students and teachers accountable, I question whether the Feds are putting their money where their policy is on this vital national issue.
I decided to examine this policy issue after reading a recent Appeal column by Lorie Smith Schaefer, a reading specialist at Seeliger Elementary School here in Carson. According to Ms. Schaefer, who should know, “No Child Left Behind assumes that America is like the fictional Lake Woebegone, where ‘all children are above average.'” Such an assumption results in a one-size-fits-all federal educational policy, which isn’t fair to “at risk” schools with large numbers of immigrant students with deficient English language skills. As Ms. Schaefer noted, “Children come to school unequal economically, culturally, emotionally, physically and intellectually.” Any policy that fails to take these differences into account is destined to fail in the long run.
The Washington Post echoed her last week when it reported that the new program “is threatening to backfire on Bush and his party in the 2004 elections.” “Although many Republicans and Democrats are confident the system will work in the long run,” the paper observed, “Bush is being criticized … for not adequately funding programs to help administrators and teachers meet the new, and critics say unreasonable, standards.” Observers from both major parties and educators agree that at least half of the public schools are failing in some states, including Nevada. And what’s worse, local school districts lack the money to turn things around in the short term.
Although NCLB is supposed to make 100 percent of schoolchildren proficient in math and reading within 10 years, Ms. Schaefer reports that one Carson City school, Empire Elementary, fails to meet federal standards – causing 12 families to opt to send their children to other schools in the district – while all but two others are on the Feds’ “watch list” for alleged shortcomings. She attributes this shaky record to the students’ limited English proficiency and asserts that the new law hits “those schools with the neediest children the hardest.” This is a serious accusation in Carson, where nearly 20 percent of local schoolchildren come from Spanish-speaking households. Obviously, English as a Second Language students should be judged by a different set of standards than native English-speakers.
Nationally, schools in several key electoral states are also failing to meet the new federal standards, and Democrats blame Bush and congressional Republicans for shortchanging NCLB by billions of dollars. “For starters, the law requires states to raise the bar for success over the next 11 years, so each year it gets harder for schools to succeed,” the Post reported. “While many governors (including Nevada’s Kenny Guinn) praise the law’s goals, budgetary problems at the state and federal levels make it highly likely the situation will worsen for Bush in 2004.”
Republicans respond that the Bush administration is providing enough money to help states meet the new standards. Nevertheless, Republicans are being blamed for what they railed against for years: Slapping unfunded mandates on states that can’t afford them. And the Washington Post comments, “With federal budget deficits approaching all-time highs and the tab for Iraq expected to grow, Bush and Congress are unlikely to provide the states with the billions of dollars they seek to quickly adopt to the new system.” This shortfall is certain to become a campaign issue next year.
On the other hand, Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie argues that education will be a winning issue for the president next year when Bush and other GOP candidates contrast their plans for educational accountability and standards with the Democrats’ demand for more taxpayer dollars – the old tax-and-spend approach to problem-solving. Here’s where I part company with politicians who simply want to throw more money at public education.
If more of our taxpayer dollars are to be spent on NCLB, they should be directed toward “at risk” schools along with early childhood (Head Start etc.) and English-teaching programs rather than at bilingual education, which is a proven failure wherever it’s been tried. I’m told that the Carson City School District emphasizes English immersion, which is good news for taxpayers and immigrant children who won’t succeed in this country without adequate English language skills. Unfortunately, despite all of the good intentions, most bilingual education graduates are condemned to second-class citizenship for life. This is an English-speaking country; end of discussion.
I also part company with Ms. Schaefer when she characterizes charter schools (aka school choice) as a Republican plot to undermine public schools. A little healthy competition never hurt anyone, not even educational bureaucrats or schoolteachers. Does that make me a “right-wing ideologue?” I don’t think so.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.