- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2007

The No Child Left Behind Act, which is up this year for reauthorization, has always had critics to the right and to the left. And while it was a bipartisan piece of legislation when President Bush signed it into law in 2002, the ugly truth is that, like its predecessor, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, NCLB further ingrains federal intervention into state and local education matters. This government monopoly on educating the public is both good and bad news for parents.

To its credit, NCLB mandates states and school districts to measure the academic progress of individual schools and pass that information on to parents and the general public. NCLB also forces school districts to offer options to parents so children who are trapped in a school that simply has not measured up in the last five or six years. They can seek enrollment elsewhere — at another public school or by way of a voucher to a private school or tutoring.

In the nation’s capital, parents have been sending a clear message to school officials: Reform and improve student achievement or else. An estimated 27,000 students have left D.C. Public Schools in the past decade, and the overwhelming majority enrolled in charter schools. A few thousand students use vouchers to attend a school of their parents’ choosing. Meanwhile, school-choice opponents try to blame the problem on low per-pupil funding rates and high pupil-teacher ratios. But their claims hold no more water than Sen. Ted Kennedy’s silver spoon. Last year, it was reported that per-pupil spending was $10,500 (second highest in the country) and the student-teacher ratio was 16-1.

One of the problems — as a parade of superintendents tries to lift up students — is that school officials are tethered to union and personnel rules that are tied to collective bargaining agreements. The new NCLB initiatives outlined this week by Mr. Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings could cut schools lose.

Critics complain that removing such limitations would mean more federal intervention. On the contrary, it spells relief for school restructuring. Again, I’ll use D.C. as an example. More than two-thirds of the city’s 146 schools failed to meet annual academic progress as set out in NCLB. The superintendent has said he wants to reconstitute some schools, and the right mix of staff is a key component to such a move. Yet transferring quality principals and teachers from successful schools to the most troubled schools invariably runs against a collective bargaining mainstay: bumping rights. This gives any schools chief two options: Transfer both wanted and unwanted staff to the troubled school; or take the lowest road and transfer only the staff with seniority.

This shell game has been played long enough. While teachers and principals bumped each other into higher and higher pay scales, America’s children are being bumped right out of the job market. They might — they might — graduate from high school knowing the difference between the Mideast and the Midwest, and there certainly are no guarantees that they will, but they won’t know the difference between a janitor and a custodian.

Mrs. Spellings, who met Wednesday afternoon with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, said the school-choice provisions in NCLB are nonnegotiable. “We’ve given them a chance, we’ve given them resources… other options have to be brought to bear… I am going to fight for these policies.”

If this is a day of reckoning for chronically failing schools, then the hallelujah chorus should begin scheduling performances in Washington. The debate over reauthorizing NCLB is either going to be a bumpy ride or a slow boat to the 2008 presidential race.

While such organizations as the Business Roundtable, IBM, Microsoft and State Farm view NCLB as a “critical” education-reform tool, critics are picking it apart wholesale, calling it fundamentally flawed. Unions, as you might suspect, are uncomfortable with any proposal that falls under the school-choice umbrella — magnet and charter schools, vouchers, etc. The Big Fella from Massachusetts, Mr. Kennedy, who held sway over the original NCLB and now is chairman of the education panel, said the school-choice provision would circumvent state law. That’s an interesting position for the senator to take. Have you ever heard Mr. Kennedy stand up for states’ rights?

According to Mrs. Spellings, 1,800 of America’s public schools are in trouble, failing to help our children reach even the basic, on-grade levels of math and reading so that they can become productive citizens who take care of their own families. Shame on us if we don’t get it right this time around.

It’s easy to picture what our jails and prisons would look like a decade from now if we fail. I don’t even want to think about what America’s economy and workforce would look like, though. And if you think I’m a scaremonger, read Robert Lighthizer’s op-ed column today on manufacturing jobs. Are we on the same page?

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