- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

A headline in The Washington Post yesterday caught my eye. “Shaping the Future,” it said, “To Ensure the Health of Young Trees, Gradual Pruning can pay Dividends.” That, I thought, is precisely what lawmakers and policy-makers should keep in mind when deliberating on education.

Sadly, what the powers that be call good public policy is often no better than the slop my great-granddaddy used to feed the family hogs in Buena Vista, Ga.

It’s a hard-knocks life for children who grow into weeds or worse, a runt, instead of growing into a sturdy, shady oak. The lack of a solid educational foundation, as statistics have proven over the decades, leaves America’s children — and its economy — deformed.

President Bush, Ted Kennedy, Rod Paige, Bill Bennett and others had hoped the ambitious No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) would give the proper pruning to America’s children. The truth is America’s public schools continue to churn out runts because the folks who have the power to change things won’t change things.

The federal government keeps sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong.

The folks we sent to Washington got around to holding a hearing this week on the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. Nothing startling happened, which is a bit disappointing considering both the battle cries we heard before passage of the legislation and the contentious rhetoric we’ve contended with since.

There are as many opinions on NCLB as Carter has little liver pills. Perhaps even more. Several came forward on Tuesday, the day that the folks we sent to Washington held a joint House-Senate hearing on NCLB. Because the 2008 presidential election booms as Washington’s loudest newsmaker, I was eager to hear what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had to say.

But a deafening silence remains.

Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and, as aspirants cut from whole Democratic cloth, they are trying their best to outdistance each other in their runs for the White House. Where each stands on education is as important as where each stands on taxes, law enforcement and other domestic issues.

Yet these two senators (along with Democratic buddy Chris Dodd) were mum on Tuesday. Mr. Obama didn’t even bother to show up for the hearing. As for Mrs. Clinton, she might as well have stayed away, too, because even though she was in attendance for part of the hearing, she was MIA. Mrs. Clinton, as Education Week noted yesterday on its Web site, “remained uncharacteristically silent and did not stay for the entire hearing.”

No give-and-take, no off-the-hip remarks. Not one scintilla of we’ve-come-too-far. No Barack or Hillary to say it takes a village or yada, yada, yada.

But while the less-than-riveting testimony essentially turned the congressional hearing itself into a dud, there was some movement (yippee) on the legislative front. Again, from The Post: “More than 50 GOP members of the House and Senate — including the House’s second-ranking Republican — will introduce legislation today that could severely undercut President Bush’s signature domestic achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act, by allowing states to opt out of its testing mandates.”

Have the pruners come to their senses? Maybe. In Washington, once the sausage-makers get rolling, the only sure thing is that the runts will eventually get tossed into the pork barrel.

One of the longstanding criticisms of NCLB is that federal funding fell way short of what states and localities needed for compliance. Another was that it forced teachers to teach to the test. On the other hand, many NCLB supporters have said all along that its most admirable mandates addressed accountability and choice. (The two factors that always have had my support.)

So to learn that dozens of Republican lawmakers are considering revising certain aspects of NCLB is hardly surprising. (Whether their changes actually become law is sausage-making for considerably skilled lawmakers.) On the House side, Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan warmed the cockles of my school-choice heart when he said: “The president believes in empowering bureaucrats in Washington and I believe in local and parental control.”

Those are fightin’ words inside the Beltway, where Republicans and Democrats alike have, since Jimmy Carter occupied the White House, used the Education Department for bipartisan scrimmaging along Pennsylvania Avenue.

All Mr. Hoekstra wants to do is give states and the District of Columbia the opportunity to opt out of some of the testing and curriculum mandates in NCLB without losing federal dollars. It makes good public policy because the Education Department has been granting waivers anyway.

The folks we sent to Washington don’t always deliver on their promises to us. Ronald Reagan, for example, promised to abolish the Education Department. He didn’t. And now we’re spending more money on runts than we were 25 years ago, and with little or no success.

But if we stand with parents in D.C. and Michigan, and Colorado and Virginia, and Utah and New York — states that are challenging NCLB — then maybe, just maybe, NCLB will be reauthorized so that the pruning shears are returned to the hands of the folks who send the folks to Washington.

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