Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Arkansas Education Association (don’t let the name fool you — it’s just our branch of the national teachers union) chose to welcome George W. Bush to the state the other day by urging the president to leave children behind.

Naturally the AEA’s spokesman didn’t use those exact words. His boilerplate criticism of the administration’s No Child Left Behind Act concentrated on the wrinkles that need to be ironed out in the law, not the whole fabric of accountability it has finally given American education.

The AEA certainly didn’t take aim at John Kerry, who’s going to be its candidate come November, and who voted for the No Child Left Behind Act himself before he started running for president and needed the union’s endorsement.

This act is a favorite target of the president’s critics. Although parents who want to see their children do better, especially if their kids are locked into failing schools, tend to like it. At last they have a tool they can use to demand that schools educate their children, not just warehouse them.

Yes, this act does apply much the same standards to able as well as disabled children, which is unrealistic, but that section of it is already being altered administratively, and probably will be further refined by the next Congress. It happens to the best of laws; they need adjusting as the facts warrant.

But the act as a whole has been good for American education. Even if it means administrators might have to change some policies, which is always such a bother.

In some respects the testing required by the law isn’t exact enough, rather than being too tough. For example, individual students should be tracked through the system, not just the same grade (with quite different students) tested from year to year. As the National Education Association itself has noted.

But what do facts matter when the object is to bash the president?

To the teachers union, the No Child Left Behind Act has become not the name of a law, with its good and bad aspects, its benefits and penalties, but just a general term of opprobrium.

When you try to pin down critics of the No Child Left Behind Act, you do get some answers, but not very good ones. For example:

• NCLB is imposing financial burdens on school districts. Ah, yes, those dreaded Unfunded Mandates. But it costs maybe $20 a head to test students, which is about the only thing the law requires of all schools, and federal aid to school districts has increased, on average, $300 a student over the past four years.

• NCLB is going to shut down schools. Not anytime soon, and then only those schools that badly need shutting down — the ones that by now have failed generations of students. Only if a school doesn’t meet minimal standards two years running can its students choose to attend another in the district.

• The administration isn’t providing enough money to help failing schools. Actually, if a school gets a failing grade three years in a row, its students are entitled to special tutoring and other extras to help them learn. There’s now federal money to pay for all that, and more will doubtless be appropriated in the future as more long-failing schools are identified.

Let it be noted that, however much John Kerry may criticize the Bush administration, he can still speak some home truths about education. In a speech he gave not long ago before a crowd of unionized teachers at a San Bernardino, Calif., public school, the senator came out for raising teacher pay. No news there.

But then he had to go and say that most of the increases should go to teachers who have distinguished themselves in some way — by working in tough schools, for example, or being able to teach needed math or science courses. What’s more, said Mr. Kerry, teacher pay ought to be based, at least in part, on how much improvement the students show. Wow. That’s accountability. That’s merit pay. And those are fightin’ words to the NEA.

How do I know? Well, when John Kerry told the union members, “I believe we need to offer teachers more pay,” he got a big hand. But then he added, “And we must ask more in return. That’s the bargain.”

The response? Dead silence. A revealing silence. It said more about this teachers union than any press release could.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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