Impotent school bill fails poor

January 04, 2002|By Kalman R. Hettleman

THE EDUCATION bill about to be signed by President Bush proves the old adage that after all is said and done, much more is likely to be said than done.

The bill -- after fierce debate for nearly a year -- was hailed on Capitol Hill as a landmark bipartisan triumph, the most important federal school legislation since 1965. The president says it will "ensure that no child in America is left behind through historic education reforms based on real accountability ... and more funding for what works."

But a student who told such a whopper would deserve a trip to the principal's office. The bill is actually a weak compromise -- a political fig leaf to cover up a lost opportunity for federal action to dramatically uplift poor students.

The key provisions require states to increase student testing and sanction failing schools, and federal aid is increased. But at best, these are marginal, not groundbreaking, reforms.

Take the new mandate that states test students in reading and math in grades three to eight. In fact, students across the country are already tested extensively. The president and Congress backed away from a more meaningful measure: full-scale national tests that would compare and validate performance results across the states.

Also, there's little new in the provisions to hold schools accountable. Under the bill, any school that has not made adequate progress for two consecutive years is supposed to receive assistance. After three years, students at failing schools are supposed to get greater public school choice and private tutoring. After five years, failing schools can be dismantled.

But similar schemes have been carried out by many states without breakthrough gains in student performance. The main reason is lack of money for better salaries and training for teachers and proven interventions to improve student test scores, such as preschool programs, small class size, summer school and tutoring.

For example, Maryland is praised nationally for its tough accountability standards. Yet more than 50 percent of all students and 80 percent of Baltimore City students are still failing state tests.

The blue-ribbon state task force on school funding recently reported that an additional $1.1 billion statewide over the next five years is required to meet their needs.

But Maryland officials are already backing off, citing the state's plunge in tax revenues. And history shows that it wouldn't matter much if state coffers were flush. For three decades, virtually all states, including wealthy and relatively liberal ones like Maryland, have defaulted -- in good and bad fiscal times -- on their duty to provide adequate funding for impoverished school districts.

The debate over the Bush bill recognized the need for the federal government to step in and provide substantial additional funding. Federal funds for kindergarten-to-grade-12 schools are boosted by about $8 billion.

Sounds gigantic, but federal funds will still be well below 10 percent of all K-12 budgets, so the impact will be slight.

Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, a voice of conscience on the issue, says bluntly, "The resources are not there to make the bill work."

For example, the Baltimore City school system will get an additional $10.5 million in aid for disadvantaged children. But that's only a little more than a 1 percent increase in the total budget, and the school system's fiscal needs are estimated by experts to be well over $300 million.

Some Democrats, who fought to up the ante, acknowledge the chasm between what the new law promises and what it can deliver. But they -- like Republicans who yielded on vouchers and the modest federal testing mandates -- chose a feeble bill over no bill at all.

Whatever the political reasons, the self-congratulations and hype on both sides of the aisle are unseemly. The accountability provisions will wither on the vine because schools won't have the resources to meet the standards for progress. And most poor American kids will continue to be left behind.

That's the way it goes in domestic politics. Sept. 11 hasn't changed everything.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore City school board and a former state human resources secretary.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.