Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Democrat Education Priorities

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congressional Democrats say when they take the gavel from Republicans next month, they will put money in the pockets of college students and closely examine a law reforming elementary and secondary schools.

How they will pay for their plans isn't clear.

That last part certainly doesn't surprise me.

Democrats haven't spelled out how they'll pay for their promises, which may run head-on into another pledge: to require any new spending to be offset with cuts elsewhere or new taxes to avoid increasing the deficit.

It isn't until the 11th paragraph of the story that we even hear about the No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization next year. Of course, the education establishment says more federal money is needed to improve education, and Democrats have never met a federal program they didn't like (unless it supported American military, intelligence, or business interests). I'll ignore the federalism argument.

Democrats say that the feds haven't provided enough money to meet the mandates of the law--"no unfunded mandates" is a siren call from not-so-distant past. But NCLB isn't an unfunded mandate, since no state is required to abide by it. The carrots and sticks involved with this law are that if states want to continue to receive federal dollars, then they must meet NCLB's requirements. That seems eminently reasonable to me--but then again, I'm not a Democrat or a member of the education establishment.

(Democrat Senator Ted) Kennedy and (Democrat Representative George) Miller joined President Bush to push for the law's passage, and they still support it. However, they say Republicans haven't spent the money needed. They say the administration has provided about $50 billion less than Congress called for. Republicans point out that it's common for legislation to be funded at less than the full level Congress authorizes.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Dale Kildee, who is likely to lead the subcommittee with oversight of the No Child Left Behind law, said the federal government has an obligation to boost funding.

"We have mandated to these local districts to achieve or face restructuring," Kildee said. "The schools that have the greatest problems have the fewest resources."

That's not entirely accurate, at least here in California. Other states still fund their schools the way California used to, with local property taxes. In such states, schools in poor areas have poor funding. But here in California, all school funding comes from Sacramento, so funding should be far more equitable. Additionally, schools in poor areas can be designated as Title I schools and they receive federal Title I funds--which are designed to be the "boost" needed to help poor and other underperforming students achieve. It's not the federal government's responsibility to kick in even more money just because some states have an inherently inequitable funding mechanism for schools. The solution to that problem isn't in Washington, DC, it's in Austin, and Jefferson City, and Jackson, and Lansing, and Albany, and in other state capitals.

OK, that's as close to the federalism argument as I'll get here.

Now look at Kildee's comment again. "We have mandated to these local districts to achieve or face restructuring," he said. He almost makes that sound like a bad thing. Mr. Kildee, that's not a bug, that's a feature! While I agree with those who think the penalty aspects of the law could be tinkered with to make them less draconian, I don't think it's a bad thing for Uncle Sam to expect some accomplishment in return for his money. Again, that seems eminently reasonable to me.

Besides money, a point of contention between some of the law's critics and its supporters is an unprecedented requirement that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2013-14, a goal critics say is unrealistic. Spellings says the date should not be moved.

"Politically it's very difficult," said Michael Rebell, an expert in the law at Columbia University's Teachers College. "Nobody wants to be the one to say that I'm going to leave any children behind."

It should be difficult. I'm one who believes that having 100% of all students at proficiency isn't going to happen, but I'm not sure we should set the goal lower. If you're one who accepts that 5% of all students don't have to be proficient, then I ask: who are the children you're willing to leave behind? Your own, perhaps?

This is a situation where California's program could be mimicked at the federal level. California sets a proficiency level for each school and requires that schools improve towards that proficiency level each year. In my opinion, California's bar for improvement is set too low; schools with less than a proficiency score of 800 (on a 0-1000 system) must only improve 5% of the gap each year, an embarrassingly low amount. For example, if a school's score is 700, that school is 100 points away from proficiency; it must improve 5% of that 100 this next school year, or raise its score only to 705, in order to avoid the "underperforming school" label. The next year the school would have to improve its score by 5% of the 95 point gap.

If the federal program were to set 100% proficiency as the target, and merely require schools to improve a certain amount each year towards that goal, I'd consider that a major improvement in the law. That's one of the "tinkerings" I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

For all the complaining about NCLB, though, I don't think anyone can deny that it's actually compelled schools to help their students improve! It requires that schools not only look at overall data, but also subgrouped data--blacks, Hispanics, poor students, English Learners, and other groups that historically do not do well--and ensure that all subgroups are improving. The draconian part is if only one subgroup doesn't improve, the school is identified as failing. They have to fix stupid things like that. But don't throw the baby out with the bath water; the basics of the law are good. It's doing what it set out to do, which is to force schools to do a better job of teaching all students.

I support this law, and I hope the new Congress will reauthorize it.

What will NEA's/CTA's take on the Democrats be if this law does, in fact, get reauthorized? Inquiring minds can't wait to find out.


Anonymous said...

Republicans always use the same method to pay for their projects: tax cuts and corporate giveaways.

In reality, no plan at all is better than that plan.

Darren said...

Neither plan is good, but no plan is *not* necessarily better--in general, or in this case in particular.