HECK: Time to leave ‘No Child’ law behind

Public schools should answer to parents, not Washington

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The time has come to repeal the president’s signature legislative accomplishment. The monstrous bureaucracy that was created by this thousand-page beast is unproductive, mismanaged and an onerous and cumbersome weight on the innovative designs of creative professionals.

Incidentally, for those who might be mistaken, I’m not referring to President Obama’s unconstitutional health care takeover, though I’m all for repeal of that as well. No, the marshy swamp of big-government micromanagement to which I refer is President George W. Bush’s signature law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

For starters, though enacted and championed by a Republican president, this piece of legislation is about as far from conservative policy as you can get. It is a massive intrusion of the federal government into an area (education) that the Constitution gives the feds absolutely no authority over whatsoever. As a general rule of thumb when evaluating a law, if it was authored by the Senate’s “liberal lion,” the late Edward M. Kennedy, and received more votes from House Democrats than Republicans, it’s safe to assume that it’s not overly bathed in conservative ideology.

But more pressing than properly identifying the ideology that spawned it, No Child Left Behind is not working. To those who have studied the 1,100 page law, that comes as no surprise. The policy hinges around a measurement gimmick known as “Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).” In order to meet AYP, a school must show that a larger percentage of its students are “proficient” at reading and math than were “proficient” the year before. But after establishing harsh penalties for failure to meet AYP and tying federal education dollars to success, the law allows states to establish their own definitions of what “proficient” means.

It’s not tough to figure out how to beat the system, is it? The lower you set your proficiency bar, the better you look when the results come in. This is exactly what the New York Times described as happening in South Carolina:

“In South Carolina, about 81 percent of elementary and middle schools missed targets in 2008,” they reported. “The state legislature responded by reducing the level of achievement defined as proficient, and the next year the proportion of South Carolina schools missing targets dropped to 41 percent.” In other words, kids are scoring just as bad or worse on tests, but states are demonstrating impressive gains in proficiency.

If that temptation to lower expectations in order to receive more money hasn’t dawned on state lawmakers yet, it soon will. President Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan is predicting that more than 80 percent of the country’s schools will fail to meet their AYP this year.

It has become clear that this law accomplishes nothing more than challenging state lawmakers and government bureaucrats to come up with innovative ways to manipulate numbers so that it appears we’re making progress. All the while, more and more children are left behind.

Believe it or not, Mr. Duncan seems to have a grasp on this problem, complaining that the No Child Left Behind law is, “forcing districts into one-size-fits-all solutions that just don’t work.” Though no one could accuse Mr. Duncan of being on the political right, his observation is exactly why conservatives have long believed in abolishing the Department of Education and returning pedagogical decisions to where the Founders intended them: the states and local communities.

Some on the right, like commentator and columnist George Will, are worried that moving in that direction will hand too much control to teachers’ unions. “Most school boards are elected, often in stand-alone elections in which turnout is low and the unions’ organization prevails,” he writes. If that is the result of returning sovereignty over educational issues to where it belongs, I say so be it.

The truth is that local teachers’ associations should not be feared or resisted like the national unions since they aren’t governed by rigid dogma or an aggressive political agenda, but by a collection of concerned teachers who have a vested interest in the well-being of their school and the children who are entrusted to their care.

Teachers are professionals who don’t need nationally elected lawyers and businessmen from California telling them the best way to get the most from their students in Connecticut. It’s time to start treating them that way - something “No Child” with its federal mandates, confusing guidelines, intimidation tactics, creativity-stifling measures and inflexible directives certainly doesn’t do.

Schools are different entities than businesses and corporations and pretending otherwise in our legislation only ensures more failure. If we truly desire to leave no child behind, it’s past time to get the federal government out of the education business and empower those who care most about that child’s success: parents and local communities.

Peter Heck is a public high-school history teacher and radio-talk show host in central Indiana.

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