- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

Administrators of failing public schools can rejoice. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has a plan that could postpone their flunking out of their jobs.

Mrs. Spellings announced a new program last week that will relieve public school systems in up to 10 states from current accountability standards under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The new program makes it less likely students can exercise the law’s already-narrow school-choice provision that allows those in certifiably bad public schools to flee to less bad public schools. The massive taxpayer investment in President Bush’s NCLB is looking more and more like a dead loss.

When Mr. Bush ran for president in 2000, he proposed increasing federal funding for local public schools — a dramatic departure from the Republican platform of 1996, which called for abolishing the Education Department. But at the same time, Mr. Bush called for vouchers to students in chronically failing public schools so they could attend private schools, instead.

This was supposed to be a payoff for conservatives if they acquiesced in increasing the size and power of a federal agency not authorized by the Constitution.

As soon as Mr. Bush was elected, he began backtracking on school choice. The day after he was inaugurated, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said, “Vouchers won’t be a top priority of this administration.” NCLB, which Mr. Bush signed a year later, did not give students in failing public schools vouchers to attend private schools. But it did allow students in failing public schools to transfer to other public schools in the same school district.

The system was supposed to work as follows: Each state would develop annual tests to check third- through eighth-graders for grade-level “proficiency” in math and reading. The states themselves would define “proficiency.” But each would be responsible for ensuring 100 percent of its public-school students achieved “proficiency” in both subjects by 2014.

Each state had to schedule “adequate yearly progress” for its schools. In California, for example, only 13.6 percent of a school’s students needed to test “proficient” in reading last year for the school to show “adequate yearly progress.” But this year, 24.4 percent needed to test “proficient.”

If a school failed two years in a row, students would be allowed to transfer. If it failed three years in a row, it would have to provide students federally funded tutoring. If it failed for five years, it would need to restructure, which might mean replacing school administrators.

But last week, Mrs. Spellings proposed schools in up to 10 states be allowed to switch to what she called a “growth model.” This means a school would not be judged year-to-year by the percentage of students testing above an objective, state-set level, but by how many improved on their own prior performance — even if they failed to achieve proficiency.

In California, where 44 percent of public schools are failing under the current standard, school administrators are thrilled with Mrs. Spellings’ proposal. “It’s a much more realistic measure of student performance,” California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell told The Washington Post. “It gives every school, every year, a shot at success.”

The lousiest school need only become one of the lousier.

When presidential candidate George Bush was pitching school choice, he called that “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Five years into the Bush presidency, American elementary schools generally still do a pathetic job on the basics. The recently released results of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests indicate only 30 percent of eighth-graders scored “proficient” or better in math (up from 29 percent last year) and only 31 percent scored “proficient” or better in reading (down from 32 percent last year).

In a speech last week, Mrs. Spellings rationalized her dumbing-down of NCLB standards. The administration, she said, still insists on “every student reaching grade level by 2014.”

But a child now in third grade will be a high-school senior by 2014. Democrats may control Congress by 2014. And, who knows? A second-term Democratic president may be maneuvering to shore up her own left-wing base by the 2014 midterm elections.

When Mr. Bush was campaigning in 2000, according to the Office of Management and Budget, Education Department spending was $33.9 billion. In 2005, it spent $70.9 billion. But long before 2014 rolls around, Republicans should leave Mr. Bush’s education policies and his big spending behind.

The Constitution left control and funding of local public schools to local government. That’s where it still belongs.

Terence P. Jeffrey is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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