Reporter’s Notebook

September 21, 2004 8 min read
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Ad Challenges Dems on ‘No Child’ Law


Convention delegates flipping through copies of the Boston Globe on Monday might have stumbled upon a provocative quarter-page advertisement with the headline: “No Child Left Behind?”

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Audio Extras:

  • Education Week editor Mark Walsh reports on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s appearance at an early childhood education forum. (2:27) Windows Media format | MP3 format

The ad, signed by more than 100 classroom teachers, parents, noted education advocates, and others, suggests the federal law is part of a plan by President Bush “to privatize America’s public schools,” and that it threatens thousands of schools with closure. The law, the ad argues, encourages “lying about the facts” and “uses blacklists to banish professionals, institutions, methods, and books.”

Ken Goodman, a professor emeritus of language and literacy at the University of Arizona in Tucson, took the lead in getting the ad placed in the July 26 edition of the Globe. He raised $11,500 to pay for it, accepting small contributions as well as $500 from a California teacher and $2,000 from a group called the California Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education.

Addressing John Kerry, John Edwards and the Democratic Party, the ad declares, “Teachers need your support to save our schools from the punitive law misleadingly labeled No Child Left Behind ... “

Sens. Kerry and Edwards, along with most other Democratic congressional delegates here, voted for the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. As candidates for the White House, both have suggested the law needs some changes, but the ad calls for stronger medicine.

“Will the Democratic Party commit to getting rid of NCLB?” it asks.

The ad quickly drew fire.

“It’s outrageous,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank aligned with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “There are legitimate criticisms of No Child Left Behind, but that ad seems to go out of its way to avoid them.”

Mr. Rotherham, a strong supporter of the law, described some of the criticisms levied as “paranoid.”

“We’ve been having difficulty getting through to the Kerry campaign that NCLB and the attack on public education is an important issue,” Mr. Goodman said. “We thought we’d try to get their attention with an ad in the Boston Globe as the convention opens.”

He added, “This [law] is a frontal attack on public education.”

The ad aims some heavy blows at the law: “Passed by a bipartisan vote, NCLB will close the majority of American elementary schools, or will allow them to be taken over by the state or profit-making businesses.”

It also suggests that the law “drives students and teachers out of schools and encourages lying about the facts,” and “bases all decision-making on test scores.”

Mr. Goodman believes the presumptive Democratic nominee needs to take a tough stand against the federal law. “Unless he takes a strong position, he’s going to lose a lot of votes from teachers and parents,” he warned. “This is something that parents are angry about.”

But Mr. Rotherham suggests that the ad’s rhetoric may well undermine its mission.

“Hysterical paranoia went out of style after the primaries, when John Kerry [prevailed],” Mr. Rotherham said.

“Ads like this hurt the cause of people seeking changes in No Child Left Behind, rather than help it,” he added. “Your average person sees an ad like that and is going to smell weirdness, not reasoned debate.”

—Erik W. Robelen

Former Teacher Vilsack Hones Speech for Prime Time


When she takes to the podium at the Democratic National Convention for a prime time speech July 27, Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack will be thinking of her 5th grade teacher.

When she was nervous about making a class presentation, her teacher told her to practice by standing in her bedroom at home, while speaking crisply to her parents, who were in the living room. The strategy worked, and Ms. Vilsack has not been shy about public speaking since.

Ms. Vilsack, a native of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, taught in public schools in New York and Iowa for 18 years. She is married to Gov. Tom Vilsack, the Democrat who was on Sen. John Kerry’s short list for the vice-presidential nomination. The first lady’s endorsement of the Massachusetts senator a week before the important Iowa caucuses helped push Mr. Kerry out of the candidate pack and along the road to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Ms. Vilsack told delegates at the National Education Association’s caucus on July 25 that she endorsed Mr. Kerry “because of the respect that I think he pays teachers.”

“It is important we get the respect that we deserve,” she added.

She said she was impressed when she dined with Mr. Kerry and his daughter Vanessa last winter, and the senator turned to his daughter to include her views in the conversation. “That first impression brought me to endorse him in the Iowa caucuses,” she added.

In an interview outside the NEA’s caucus meeting, Ms. Vilsack mentioned proudly that she had just had her teacher certification renewed, even though she now works in schools as a volunteer.

“I’m in a classroom several times a week,” she said.

‘Main Street’

In her convention speech, she said she planned to talk about “Midwestern values and the value of education.”

“I live on Main Street in Mount Pleasant, the town where I grew up,” she said.

Asked about how Iowa was coping with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Ms. Vilsack quickly said, “I don’t think much of it. I might think something of it if they funded it. The punitive aspects concern me.”

Ms. Vilsack’s appearance before the NEA came one day before The Boston Herald ran a front-page article raising questions about two newspaper columns she had written in 1994 and 1996 for the Mt. Pleasant News, when her husband was a state senator.

According to the Herald, the columns discussed the difficulty Ms. Vilsack had with some American speech dialects, such as those of Southerners, residents of New Jersey, and African-Americans.

“I am fascinated at the ways some African-Americans speak to each other in an English I struggle to understand, then switch to standard English when the situation requires,” she wrote in one column, according to the Herald.

The Herald news story called the columns “inflammatory” and it suggested that Ms. Vilsack “seemed to be promoting English as the nation’s official language.”

Ms. Vilsack could not be reached for comment after the Herald story, but in an interview with The Des Moines Register on July 26, she said that the column was meant to poke fun at her own inability to understand different dialects while promoting proper English.

“I’m pretty good about making fun of myself, and the inability to understand someone is often my problem,” Ms. Vilsack told the Des Moines paper. “I was, in that column, really sort of self-deprecating, making fun of myself.”

“I have celebrated language, but also taught diversity and tolerance,” she added. “That’s who I am.”

—Mark Walsh

Education a Focus of Harvard Event

Cambridge, Mass.

When 15,000 reporters come to town for a major political convention, all manner of organizations try to come up with events to keep them occupied and draw attention during the daytime hours, when the convention hall itself is pretty quiet.

While Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who will accept his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Boston this week, is a Yale man, Harvard University still wanted to make its mark. Two of its main events were a domestic policy forum and a foreign policy forum at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The domestic policy forum on July 26 centered on education, health care, welfare, and economics. The event drew an audience of several hundred, including Harvard students in summer session and young people who were in town for the convention.

“There are enormous debates to be had about whether the [private school] voucher system is right, about whether the war is right, about what to do on Medicare,” said Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard and the moderator of the forum. “But no countries have advanced their national purposes without having been well- and competently governed.”

“Part of respecting your country is respecting your government,” said Mr. Summers, who served as a secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton.

Caroline M. Hoxby, an economics professor at Harvard who has written widely about education, said that when it comes to improving the nation’s public schools, “we’re past the easy answers and on to the difficult ones.”

“If we want to remain one of the richest nations on earth ... we have to remain highly skilled,” she added. But industries requiring highly skilled employees are not going to stay in the United States if they can’t find the personnel to do the job.

“They don’t have to locate in the U.S.,” she said.

While spending on K-12 education has more than doubled since 1970, when adjusted for inflation, “we have not improved achievement dramatically in that time,” she said.

“Slovenia spends less than a sixth what we do per pupil, and they beat us flat in every international test,” Ms. Hoxby said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act “is going to have to be revisited and refined,” she said. Although she added that the school-improvement law has at least two good things going for it: a focus on low-achieving students and “a sense of urgency.”

But the law’s system of rewarding or penalizing schools based on achievement is “crude” and “just needs to be fixed. I don’t think it is rocket science to fix it.”

The law’s provision allowing students attending schools labeled “in need of improvement” to transfer to better public schools does not give children in many urban communities a realistic opportunity to change schools, she said.

“The goals of the legislation are good, but implementation is on the sketchy side,” Ms. Hoxby said.

—Mark Walsh


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