Thursday, January 15, 2004

No Child Left Behind?

The Federal government has been engaged in an ambitious program in order to Federally mandate the testing of schools. In schools that fail to meet standards, the students are given a voucher which their parents can use to send them to another school - including private or charter schools. Despite that this program affects virtually every school system in the country, most parents and the public don't know about how NCLB works at all.

Here is the formal Dept. of Education NCLB summary. However, as one might expect from a government bureaucracy they skim over the critical details. The act has proven quite controversial, with some like Rod Paige of the Concord Monitor Online writing in support of NCLB claiming that it provides additional funding and requires local school systems to improve in exchange for Federal money. On the other hand, the NEA has filed a lawsuit against NCLB claiming that NCLB is an unfunded Federal mandate.

Some have accused the NEA of being an obstructionist Labor union that opposes genuine reform in school systems. However, local school systems like Franklin, NH are also fighting NCLB as an unfunded Federal mandate. Specifically the article notes:

Most education officials — including Franklin’s Title I reading specialist Michelle Kreamer — say that it will cost school districts more money to implement than they receive from the federal government. US Senator Judd Gregg, R-NH, maintains that the money which comes with the law, along with the greater flexibility that the law provides for money that previously came to local school districts, will cover the implementation costs.

Kreamer told the school board that No Child Left Behind already has cost Franklin money because of its reauthorization of the so-called McKinney-Vento Act. According to Kreamer, among other provisions, the law now defines homelessness as including students who stay with relatives. It forces school districts to pay expenses such as food, transportation, school supplies, clothing, and medical expenses for “homeless” students.


If it was one school system then this might be an abberation, but in fact other schools systems in New Hampshire voted to oppose NCLB:

PLAISTOW -- School officials last night voted to join other school districts across the state in taking a stand against the federal government's imposition of new educational laws without providing enough federal money to implement them.

However, some people still hotly argue that NCLB is a fair and fully funded program. However, most of these people who argue for that are bureaucrats or politicians at the Federal level. At the local level, places like Vermont candidly acknowledge that NCLB contains "hidden" implementation costs and increases Federal control of local-state school systems. Once you get away from Washington or pundits in the pockets of idealogues, it becomes abundantly clear that NCLB is a seriously intrusive and expensive Federal mandate.

Educators of every stripe at all levels, beyond the much pilloried NEA crowd, strongly oppose this act on those grounds. Furthermore, polls conducted by the Phi Delta Kappan Proffessional Journal of Education indicate that most people do not know much about NCLB and that they generally oppose strongly the key parts of the measure.

Specifically the following findings by a PDK/Gallup poll are notable:

A total of 83% of respondents believe decisions regarding what is taught in the public schools should be made at the state level (22%) or by the local school board (61%). NCLB involves major federal intervention. (See Table 7.)

The public strongly opposes excessive Federal intervention into state-local school systems. Also:

Eighty-four percent believe the job a school is doing should be measured on the basis of improvement shown by students. NCLB requires that a specified percentage of students -- in the school as a whole and in each subgroup -- must pass a state test, and improvement is not a factor. (See Table 8.)

The public realizes that it is unfair to expect poor school districts to compete with affluent ones. The only fair way to compare progress is by improvement compared to past performance. A rich school district that has athletics, drama, Advanced Placement courses, well-adjusted kids from well-off families, foreign language, and can afford to hire better teachers (such as with Master's degrees) cannot be compared to a poor school district that can barely keep the roof from leaking.

Furthermore the public does not believe that NCLB uses the right testing method for evaluating schools:

Sixty-six percent believe a single test cannot provide a fair picture of whether a school is in need of improvement. NCLB bases this judgment on a state test administered annually in grades 3 through 8. (See Table 9.)

Is there any support for the President's NCLB program? Well interestingly enough, most parents seem to be willing to consider private schools and use a voucher system, where they are available.

Given a full-tuition voucher, 62% of respondents would choose a private school for their child, while 35% would choose a public school. The choices change if the value of the voucher drops to half the cost of tuition, with 47% choosing a public school. (See Tables 33 and 34.)

SUMMARY:

The NCLB act is pretty clearly a program that is an unfunded mandate and excessively interferes with local-state school systems. While defenders of the act point to funding that was included in the legislative measure, on the ground local school systems find that it is costing more to implement NCLB than it provides money for. In addition, supporters of NCLB tout that it gives more freedom for school systems to spend some type of Federal funds. However, this is far outweighed by the Federal government testing school systems and then mandating that they achieve unrealistic and unfair standards that the public does not support in order to get their share of Federal money.

As a conservative, I must oppose NCLB on the grounds that two classic conservative principles of:
1. Conservatives believe in localism. Conservative ideals hold that central government bureaucracies are inefficient and overly intrusive. Control of money should remain at the local levels where it can be spent the most wisely.

This theory was in fact first publicly articulated by President Richard Nixon (R) who proposed the creation of block grants. These grants have been used successfully to give control of social services back to state and local government in Welfare reform, road-construction, and many other aspects of society. Conservatives and Republicans strongly support this.

2. Conservatives oppose unfunded mandates. Federal mandates that require state or local governments to spend money to comply with new regulations are really another form of taxes. Because there is "no such thing as a free lunch". Someone always pays - usually the taxpayer!

In fact, it is no longer merely a principle. As the Heiritage Foundation has noted, Congress passed a law making unfunded mandates illegal. However as the article notes:

Few Americans have any idea that Washington forces all sorts of laws and regulations on state and local governments -- concerning everything from storm-water drainage to health care for illegal immigrants -- without giving states and localities so much as a penny to pay for them.

Unfortunately, NCLB despite the protests of its supporters is clearly an unfunded mandate. It should never have been passed, because it is illegal to try to make local school systems pay out of pocket to meet Washington testing rules. However, this hasn't stopped President GW Bush from supporting NCLB even though it may be underfunded by as much as several billion dollars.

In light of all this information, no conscientious Republican or conservative could support NCLB even though many like I encourage charter schools and a reasonable voucher system. Unlike Democrats, I do not fear the dismantling of the public education system. But as a matter of social justice and respect for the dictates of the Bible, it would unconscienceable in order to let school children have no place to go. The great danger is that if the public school system fails, some poor counties or school districts will only have ramshackle buildings with poorly trained teachers in order to instruct them. This is clearly against the American ideals of an egalitarian society and equal opportunity. So before we let the whole school system go private, we must set up a system so that it will ensure that local kids will always have a school in order use their vouchers at. Without a choice in schools within a reasonable travel distance, vouchers are just so much worthless paper.

So as people who care about the future of our country and want little kids in order to have the education they need to become healthy and happy citizens, please oppose NCLB and please do so most especially if you are a conservative!

"18:5 Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me,

18:6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea."


From the Book of Matthew

NOTE: I no longer regularly attend Church, but I still read the Bible quite a bit and believe in the values taught to me.

PS: Thanks to Beth for cluing me in on the Phi Delta Kappan source. You know who you are! We'll get together soon.

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