- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Education, the domestic cornerstone of the Bush presidency, has been a constant source of debate. When George W. Bush campaigned for the White House in 2000, he used the phrase No Child Left Behind to describe his education-reform initiative. After that initiative became law, congressional Democrats, teacher’s unions and some governors accused the president of failing to sufficiently fund his own proposal. There were other criticisms as well — despite the fact that NCLB was developed to increase student achievement, mandate accountability, offer states more flexibility in spending and grant parents more options for their children. While NCLB was not designed to spend more federal money on schools, the Bush administration has done precisely that, increasing overall funding by 48 percent since fiscal 2001 (including a 75 percent increase in special education programs and a 52 percent rise in funding for disadvantaged students). More importantly, though, NCLB is producing the academic effects that the Bush administration had intended.

While school districts around the country are taking small steps, Philadelphia is taking big leaps. Consider this brief timeline: In 2000, then-Gov. Tom Ridge brought in a private company to help redirect Philadelphia schools. In 2001, Philadelphia launched the largest school-reform project in modern history. In 2002, a new reform panel identified scores of schools with low test scores. In 2003, more than 200 of Philadelphia’s 265 schools failed to meet the yearly progress standards set by No Child Left Behind. In 2004, school authorities managed, in one short school year, to produce significant academic progress: 160 schools met the mark or surpassed academic goals.

How did Philadelphians do it? First, they turned their backs on the status quo and figured out how to finance their school reform plans by leveraging state and, most importantly, federal dollars. They implemented plans that were historically unprecedented in that they turned 45 schools over to the hands of for-profit and not-for-profit groups. The results: Not only did a majority of schools utilize NCLB to push for — and achieve — greater percentages of students scoring proficient or above in reading and math, but there was also a decrease in the percentage of students scoring below basic.

As for claims by Democrats and the National Education Association that NCLB is an unfunded mandate, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Pennsylvania and other states and local school districts failed to spend $5.7 billion in federal school money in fiscal 2000, 2001 and 2002. Pennsylvania reportedly had nearly $44 million in unspent Title I funds alone.

Philadelphia is arguably the best example of what Mr. Bush meant when he first said that wise spending and effective leadership can help ensure that no child is left behind. The fact that states had so much federal school money on their hands and that they could not even spend it all should debunk the myth that No Child Left Behind is an unfunded federal mandate.

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