Rove’s Rejector, Not-So-Sweet Home Alabama, and Burning Issues in Baltimore

By Anthony Rebora — November 19, 2004 3 min read

If you’re a Democrat still sulking about the election results, you might find a modicum of satisfaction in a piece of news about Margaret Spellings, President Bush’s recently named choice to replace outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige: In the 1980s, when they were both working for then-Governor Bush in Texas, Spellings “brutally” turned down a request for a date by über political strategist Karl Rove. (“It has taken my ego decades to recover,” Rove joked.) But that’s not to suggest that Spellings might jilt the administration on its education agenda. A top domestic policy adviser in the White House and long-time aide to Bush, she is cited as a behind-the-scenes architect of the No Child Left Behind Act and a key partner in the evolution of the president’s thinking on school accountability.

Indeed, in the wake of the Republicans’ gains in Congress, the Bush administration is expected to try to expand NCLB, in part by extending the law’s controversial testing regimen to high schools. In addition, some conservatives are looking for a greater role for private school vouchers. But the administration is also expected to face strong resistance from a growing number of educators and parents concerned about the law’s effects on their schools. To date, some 30,000 schools are reported to have been marked as low-performing under NCLB, with some studies suggesting that the list could grow dramatically as “adequate yearly progress” goals escalate.

Meanwhile, this year’s election news brought to light the curious fact that Alabama still has language in its state constitution—albeit unenforceable—requiring racially segregated schools. In preliminary counts, an amendment to remove the language narrowly failed to gain approval from a majority of state voters—but for complicated reasons. Opponents of the referendum reportedly objected not to the language involving segregation but to an interrelated proposal that would have deleted a separate constitutional clause stipulating that Alabama does not guarantee the right to an education at the public’s expense. Such an excision, they argued, would open the state to lawsuits alleging its failure to adequately fund schools and ultimately lead to higher taxes—political anathema in the conservative state. Supporters questioned that logic: “This was a real stretch of the imagination to say your taxes will go up just because the constitution says you have a right to an education,” said Kimble Forrister, the state coordinator of Alabama Arise, a coalition of social-service and religious groups. Even so, many in the state would like to see the two issues disjoined.

While homeschooling parents sometimes bemoan the lack of safety in public schools, a new investigation by the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio suggests that on the whole, kids may be no more safe in homeschooling arrangements. In a review of more than 5,000 newspaper articles from across the country during the past five years, the Beacon Journal found that 41 children in families identified as homeschoolers were murdered in cases involving their own family members. The examination also revealed accounts of “bizarre, life-threatening diets; beatings in the name of God; and adolescent girls involved in pornography.” While homeschool supporters said that the parents involved in such incidents can’t be considered legitimate members of their movement—“those people are freaks. They are not homeschoolers,” said one mother—the newspaper notes that the perpetrators relied on lax homeschooling laws to escape society’s gaze. That stands to reason, considering the Number 1 reporters of potential child abuse are teachers.

Parents in Baltimore would be justified in questioning how safe their kids are during the school day. So far this school year, more than 75 fires have been set in the city’s schools. On just one day in October, firefighters were called to 10 different school fires. Usually set by students, the fires have mostly been small and have yet to cause serious injury, but they’ve led to school cancellations and outbreaks of violence. Some observers believe the rash of blazes is attributable in part to stresses on the schools caused by drastic budget cuts for staffing and extracurricular activities. “You have a net reduction of the adults who are able to supervise students,” said Bebe Verdery, education director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “When you combine that with the increased class sizes, the schools seem much less capable of controlling the violence and the fire setting.”

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