- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2001

As things stand now, the fiscal 2002 budget for the U.S. Department of Education is expected to be a whopping $45 billion. That is a remarkable 12 percent increase over this year's budget. The extra funds are targeted at special education, Head Start, school modernization and teacher-related (but not classroom) technology, as well as some other programs. The push for these extra funds was generated in general by talk about school reform and in particular by such special-interest groups as teachers' unions and the National PTA. Children do not have a union so their voices were not heard.

And isn't that ironic? Isn't it ironic that the very people who have the highest stake in public education have the least influence?

What's worse is that all this talk about reform - and virtually everyone has a stake in education reform - will generate little true reform if the quality of America's teaching corps remains inferior and if the true measure of accountability (that is, standardized testing) remains disjointed.

Changing both are cornerstones of President Bush's education initiative and were, in fact, indulged in legislation he sent to up to Capitol Hill what seems an eternity ago. But, what Congress is pondering now bears little resemblance to Mr. Bush's plan. And that's too bad for our children and for our nation.

Consider, first, how American children stack up against their foreign-based counterparts, and then consider who's minding the classrooms. According to the results of international mathematics comparisons conducted in 1998, America's high school seniors placed 19th out of 21 nations. And, when it comes to reading, 40 percent of our third-graders are illiterate. If this were 1901 and not 2001, perhaps that would be understandable.

Indeed, my maternal grandparents were illiterate. And, when it came to math, or "digits," as they used to call them, they wouldn't have stacked up much better than today's third-graders. But they were black and reared in the South - and, moreover, reared in a nation that forbade their grandparents to read. So instead of becoming teachers, or firefighters, or presidents or union leaders, my grandmother became a domestic and my grandfather slaved in the steel mills in Pittsburgh. While that was enough to help raise their families, if you really and truly think about it, that's about the same standard of living for many of today's American- and foreign-born illiterates.

And, consider this, too. Whereas a generation of American children raised on the same programs that receive the largest chunks of your tax dollars, such as Head Start and bilingual and special education programs, are asking you whether fries go with your shake, half of the Ph.Ds granted in computers and engineering are in the hands of recent immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe.

Is it a set up? Is Orval Faubus mocking us? Is America's public education system designed to fail? Consider this as well, the Praxis I, a test used by 36 states to certify teachers, can easily be passed by a typical high school junior and many states are so overwhelmed by the nationwide teacher shortage until some, are hiring college graduates with no certification.

An organization called the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is trying to raise the quality of our classroom teachers by helping teachers demonstrate where it matters most - and that's in the classroom - that they are indeed accomplished teachers. The board also supports, as Mr. Bush does, the idea that all states should use the standardized National Assessment of Education Progress test to measure student achievement. Unfortunately, such privileged characters as Sen. Ted Kennedy and others think states should be flexible to use their own tests, which aren't necessarily up to snuff.

For example, Virginia uses what's called the Standards of Learning. One of the questions it asks is who was John Rolf. I was asked that question the other day by Linda Hoestra, an NBPTS teacher and one of Fairfax County's best, during a recent breakfast meeting here at The Washington Times. "Uh, Pocahontas," I responded. "Good for you," she said, as enthusiastically as any grade-school teacher should, before asking, "But would third-graders know?"

Of course, not. But that's my point. When the special interests get wind of someone speaking up on behalf of children, the self-serving drown out their voices. In the case of accountability, that means designing tests that ask certain grades certain questions, and then allowing unionized teachers and administrators to dumb down the children by making sure they never learn the answer. It will have a very steep price tag and very little of what America's children need - true reform. Mr. Bush should not sign the legislation. He should stand his ground and remember what he promised, and that was to do what's right. As old folks used to say, "if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."

E-mail: dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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