Education is always one of the most volatile and emotional issues, whether it’s being debated on Capitol Hill or at the many local school boards around the nation. Because of this, I am a bit surprised that President-elect Barack Obama has yet to nominate anyone for Secretary of Education. Perhaps they are deeply vetting candidates, because so much is at stake.
The first job for the new Education Secretary will be to handle the “hot potato” known as "No Child Left Behind." The law was approved by Congress with wide bipartisan support in 2001 and signed by President Bush. In a nutshell, NCLB mandated that each state conduct standardized tests to measure student proficiency (and, it was hoped, improvement) in math, reading and writing. Schools that don’t improve face sanctions and can even lose federal funding. Parents are supposed to have the option of moving their kids out of failing schools.
The results have been mixed and the law controversial. Supporters point to a Department of Education report in 2005 that showed reading and math scores were up, overall. Critics say that because states write the tests, they can lower standards and reclassify students to make the scores look better. Supporters say NCLB provides accountability in the classroom; critics say it forces teachers to spend valuable instruction time “teaching to the test.”
If there is one area where there is widespread agreement, it’s that NCLB has been underfunded. It was passed by Congress before the September 11, 2001, attacks (although signed by President Bush in January 2002) and before the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously there was a major shift in resources in Washington, DC. Critics say NCLB was eligible for $23 billion in funding for 2006, but that the Bush Administration requested only $13 billion. Republicans in Congress say the higher figure was meant to be a ceiling for spending, not a promised windfall.
In either case, many supporters and foes alike believe NCLB would work better if more money were spent on it. For example, some students might perform better if tutors and after-school programs were funded, rather than having low-scoring schools lose federal dollars. It seems counterintuitive that the schools most in need, stand to lose the most money. Yes, it’s an incentive for them to improve, but it can tie their hands along the way.
The issue fascinates me from political, academic and parental standpoints. It was widely discussed on the Presidential campaign trial, which is where I spent much of my time this year. We also discussed it a lot at St. Mary’s College, where I continue to work on my Doctorate in Educational Leadership. And most of all, as with any parent, I want to see how it helps my kids and their classmates.
A big concern for all is where President Obama puts his priorities. According to the “Contra Costa Times,” Obama has listed education as fifth on his priority list, behind the economy, energy policy, health care reform and tax cuts. http://www.contracostatimes.com/search/ci_11143404?IADID
Given the overall state of the economy and a year-old recession, it’s hard to guess how much attention and money NCLB will receive. The new Education Secretary must be a vocal and high-profile advocate for either fixing the law or gutting it. NCLB expired in 2007, but is now up for renewal before Congress
Obama has promised to bring bipartisanship back to Washington. With that in mind, he and Members of Congress need to remember an important history lesson. While President Bush proposed No Child Left Behind, it had the huge support of such Democratic luminaries as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA). In short, it was a real bipartisan bill; and so the credit for its successes and the blame for its failures should be spread across party lines. That’s also the best road map for getting it fixed!
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