In January 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, which he said would implement reforms aimed at upgrading school performance. It was, he said, the cornerstone of his education policy, and he praised its measures, which would require schools to show annual progress among all groups of students.
The purpose of the law, he said, was to get all children up to grade level in reading and math. That's a laudable goal, but have results followed the words spoken by the president? The answer, according to experts in education, is definitely "no."
Critics of the Bush administration say the president has not provided the funds necessary to carry out the promises of the No Child Left Behind law. The National Education Association, a major lobbying organization for public schools, says the federal government has failed to give the states and their school systems the necessary financial resources to meet the testing and other requirements of the NCLB Act.
Another educational group, the so-called Independent Center on Education Policy, says No Child Left Behind has shown some signs of preliminary success but also has severe difficulties that must be fixed.
The states and schools say they don't have sufficient funding to improve the thousands of schools that have failed to achieve the goals set out in the law, and as a result face penalties outlined in NCLB. The organization joins other critics in saying that the law's testing requirements for disabled children and those with limited English are unfair and inappropriate.
The NEA has stated that without flexibility and resources, the NCLB Act will fall far short of its goals. It lists numerous areas it feels need attention. Realistically, however, the association's expectations cannot be achieved all at once given the limited federal funds available for schools. The NEA closes its eyes to what it certainly must be aware of -- that government promises rarely materialize as outlined in initial efforts, no matter how well intentioned.
The NEA says the Bush budget does not provide enough Title 1 funds for disadvantaged children to help all those who are eligible. Full funding, it says, would assist an additional 5.3 million children. Also on the NEA's priority list is funding to hire an additional 15,000 teachers. The association also criticizes the Bush budget for shortchanging the popular Head Start program. Full funding, it says, would bring an additional 3.1 million preschoolers under the program. Also being shortchanged, the NEA says, is funding for Pell grants for college. It claims full funding would allow another 3.1 million students to attend college.
The U.S. Census Bureau says the nation's public schools are $250 billion in debt, although spending for public elementary and secondary schools has continued to increase. Spending varies from state to state, with New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., on top of the spending list, each with more than $12,000 per pupil. In sharp contrast is Utah, which spends $4,900 per pupil, and Arizona and Mississippi, which both spend less than $6,000 per student.
Despite the negative comments of some education organizations, a recent Public Education Network report says that the public still strongly supports the NCLB Act and doesn't want to see its goals diluted. The network makes a good point in noting the stigma attached to schools that are designated as failing institutions. This practice, it says, demoralizes students, parents and communities. The network report is worthy of close review. It contains valid suggestions that could improve our public schools.
The NCLB Act, if properly funded, can be an important step in furthering public education but certainly needs some changes.
Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.