Another Perspective

Lightning Rod Paige

Except this time the teachers’ unions are right to thunder against mindless federal interference.

By 2.25.04

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After causing a furor by jocularly calling the National Education Association a "terrorist organization" at a meeting with U.S. governors on Monday, Education Secretary Rod Paige issued this "apology":

It was an inappropriate choice of words to describe the obstructionist scare tactics the NEA's Washington lobbyists have employed against No Child Left Behind's historic education reforms. I also said, as I have repeatedly, that our nation's teachers, who have dedicated their lives to service in the classroom, are the real soldiers of democracy, whereas the NEA's high-priced Washington lobbyists have made no secret that they will fight against bringing real, rock-solid improvements in the way we educate all our children regardless of skin color, accent or where they live. But, as one who grew up on the receiving end of insensitive remarks, I should have chosen my words better.

Clearly, Paige has no shortage of pugnacity. But to make such a tin-eared remark in the first place shows a certain naiveté-- the same naiveté, perhaps, that would lead one to support a federal education initiative like the No Child Left Behind Act.

NCLB requires testing each year in grades three through eight; schools get more federal money if they fail to make adequate progress toward meeting a proficiency standard for two years in a row. Since states design their own tests and set their own minimum proficiency levels, there have been vast discrepancies in performance from state to state, making it difficult to gauge how efficiently the money is actually being spent.

If a school that receives Title I federal funds for disadvantaged students fails two years in a row, students are supposed to be allowed to switch to a different school within their district. But surveys show that fewer that 2 percent of those eligible to take advantage of the choice provision transferred to a different school last fall, and more than half of those who requested transfers were turned down by state officials, generally in violation of the spirit but not the letter of the law.

Meanwhile, some award-winning schools have faced the embarrassment of being declared failing, and states like Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and Kentucky, that have seen test scores rise impressively under state-level reforms, nonetheless have seen a majority of their schools found failing under NCLB.

NCLB PASSED THE HOUSE 381-41, with more Democrat than Republican ayes. The small minority consisted largely of conservative Republicans unhappy with a bill featuring spending hikes and mandates on local schools with no provision for private school vouchers. Dennis Kucinich voted for the bill, as did John Kerry and John Edwards in the Senate, but that hasn't stopped Democrats from condemning its implementation almost universally, on the campaign trail and off. Even Ted Kennedy, whose support was crucial to the bill's passage, now blames Republicans for underfunding it -- never mind that federal education spending has increased 48% under the Bush Administration compared to 15% from 1990 to 2000.

Of course, demanding more spending is what Democrats do. More remarkable is the sudden enthusiasm for local control. In the current National Review, Kate O'Beirne writes that Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) pointed her to a Howard Dean quote strangely reminiscent of a Republican critiques of federal education spending in the '90s: "Michigan schools are a lot better off being run by people in Michigan than by bureaucrats like George Bush and Tom DeLay." (DeLay voted against NCLB, but candidate Dean never felt bound by anything so pedestrian as the facts.)

Democrats' change of heart on NCLB, it almost goes without saying, is attributable to their deep ties to the teachers unions. Paige's scorn for the NEA may be understandable -- union-backed salary schedules that make it almost impossible to reward good teachers and punish bad ones are among the largest barriers to real reform of the school system. But in the case of NCLB, unions are reflecting the bitter complaints of their members.

HERE IN MARYLAND, a state with fairly stringent standards, teachers and administrators have been under intense pressure to prepare for the state exams that children are taking this week and next. At some schools that face the prospect of failing for a second year, administrators have canceled extracurricular activities to allow more study time, even taking away children's gym and recess. The craziest story I've heard is that kindergartners at one Title I school in Baltimore County are being taught songs about the state test to cheer on the third through eighth graders.

Small wonder some NEA members are at their wits' end. Given that the unions sometimes choose self-perpetuation over improving the lot of their members, as with the preference for smaller class sizes over separate classes for special-needs children (the latter is a more cost-effective way to improve learning efficiency and makes teachers' jobs easier, but the former creates more dues-paying union members), perhaps the NEA should be applauded for in this instance representing members' concerns.

By the time NCLB passed, the majority of states already had some reform based on testing and accountability in place. The tendency has been for standards to be relaxed in the face of political pressure. But at least with state-level reforms, negotiations over standards are between state officials and the teachers unions; NCLB puts both of those actors on the offensive against the federal government.

The mess created by No Child Left Behind demonstrates once again what we already knew: Not all problems are best handled by Washington.

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About the Author

John Tabin is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.