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Education Opinion

NCLB II: The Liberal’s Dilemma

January 07, 2008 4 min read

Politically, the future of No Child Left Behind is quite clear. Relative to the Bush years, more money will go to public schools with less accountability.

The money part is no great surprise; Democrats believe the President reneged on his agreement to higher levels of funding in return for higher levels of accountability as soon as Republicans gained control of Congress. They are probably correct, but what matters is that it’s what they believe.
The accountability part is no great political surprise. On this one point, chief state school officers, school boards, superintendents, teachers unions, and even mainstream publishers agree. Fully aside from funding, their trade groups share a view that the system can’t make it under NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions. (They are probably correct.) Countervailing institutional support for this level of accountability from governors, legislators and mayors just isn’t there – in no small part because program evaluation hasn’t suggested that the market created by the law will change student outcomes enough to justify the battle. (Shame on the school improvement industry.)

Still, writing in the January 7 issue of the Washington Post, Senator Edward Kennedy highlighted the dilemma NCLB reauthorization poses to liberal Democrats. Politically, the Democrats have owned the idea called “public education.” More to the point, public education’s real political institutions hold a lot of equity in the Democratic Party. The “public education” sector of our economy is the last great bastion of American trade unionism - a historic, if fading, source of party strength. The money, organization and votes matter to any politicians’ power in the Party, and the Party’s ability to win elections from the White House to the school board. The NEA doesn’t control the Democratic Party, but it comes close to controlling its education policy.

With this reality in mind, Senator Kennedy parrots the institutional critique of No Child Left Behind:

“The process for rating troubled schools fails to reward incremental progress made by schools struggling to catch up. Its one-size-fits-all approach encourages “teaching to the test” and discourages innovation in the classroom…. It falls short in achieving smaller classes so that teachers can give children the one-on-one attention they need.”

Good, bad or indifferent, these arguments were being made when NCLB passed in 2001. At the time the Senator was not persuaded. Now he agrees. I suspect he has no choice, because the Democrats surely believe they are going to regain the White House. He knows that the political center on education reform he held with Congressman Miller during a Bush presidency will be considered the far right in 2009.

The political choice for Kennedy is clear, but the moral price will be high. The Senator knows that No Child Left Behind pits one of his party’s institutional pillars against one of its most sacred values – civil rights. He pays homage to that legacy:

“On the plus side, the law demands that all children must benefit -- black or white, immigrant or native-born, rich or poor, disabled or not. Before its enactment, only a handful of states monitored the achievement of every group of students in their schools. Today, all 50 states must do that…. All schools now measure performance based not on the achievement of their average and above-average students but on their progress in helping below-average students reach high standards as well.”

Finally, he grabs onto the one glimmer of objective evidence that NCLB has advanced the Democrat’s civil rights agenda.

“The positive changes are evident in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” The improvements are still modest, but they’re noticeable, particularly among students who formerly were low achievers. We’re beginning to see a narrowing of the achievement gap between white students and other students. “

I wish it were not true, but there is something of a zero sum game here. The price of redirecting resources and attention to students that public education has neglected is the infliction of a great deal of pain on the institutions of public education that did things differently. And here we come back to a basic problem of politics. Superintendents, principals and teachers might do very well in a new system with a new set of institutions. But institutions have lives of their own, and like every living thing, they want to go on living and will fight hard to do so.

Senator Kennedy ended his column this way:

“Four decades ago, my brother Robert Kennedy asked at a Senate hearing on education: “What happened to the children?” That question is as appropriate today as it was in 1966. We’re still not doing enough for the nation’s schools and children.”

Exactly. For liberals, the political choice on NCLB is obvious – go along with the institutions. But the moral consequence of that choice can only haunt the conscience.

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