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GIVING KIDS A CHANCE

My wife is a part-time creative writing teacher in a District of Columbia public high school. She comes home with stories more shocking, poignant, bizarre, scandalous and hilarious than those I've seen on "Boston Public" and other TV dramas about the traumas of high school.

I was particularly touched by what she heard one day from a 16-year-old girl from "Southeast," which is how Washingtonians refer to the poorest section of town. "Ms. Page, you come to every class, don't you?" she said. "I never had a teacher who came to every class before." Sadly, some teachers don't take their jobs as seriously as they should, and their sloth is protected too often by their union.

Such anecdotes may never turn into the Oscar-winning script I imagine my wife could write, but they do come to mind as I examine the lawsuits and other objections that more than 30 states -- including some Republican strongholds -- have kicked up against President Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform law.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union and a leading critic of No Child Left Behind, along with eight school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont, sued the Department of Education last week. They accused No Child Left Behind of violating a federal education law that forbids the federal government from requiring states to spend their own money to enforce mandates Washington has imposed.

Utah's very Republican legislature also cited the same grounds in passing a bill that requires educators there to spend as little state money as possible in carrying out the law's requirements. Connecticut's attorney general two weeks earlier announced his state's intentions to sue the Department of Education on the same grounds.

I also have criticisms of No Child Left Behind. The law's one-size-fits-all approach to setting national education standards is treacherously simplistic. It flies in the face of what just about every parent who pays attention quickly realizes: Every child learns differently. And the law's standards for learning disabilities sound unfairly narrow. For an administration that opposes racial or gender quotas, Team Bush is remarkably eager to impose quotas on how many of a district's students can be judged "learning-impaired."

But imperfect as No Child Left Behind may be, I'd rather stick with it and try to improve it than replace it with nothing -- and nothing is precisely what too many of its critics are offering as an alternative. As much as I quarrel with some of Bush's policies, at least he took his own campaign promises about education seriously. He stepped up to the plate in the manage-by-objective fashion of other Harvard Business School grads and set a clear, achievable goal: Make every student in the country proficient in reading and math by 2014.

That alone caused much snarling and gnashing of teeth from critics. But as little as Bush may be known for soaring oratory, his best quote in my memory was his criticism of "the soft bigotry of low expectations" for our public school students. And who knows? Just as it took Richard M. Nixon to open doors to communist China, it may take another conservative Republican like Bush to kick-start national education reforms.

After decades of fighting for equal educational opportunities for the poor, national Democrats and too many major civil rights leaders have become extensions of the teachers' unions, falling into a self-defeating, lock-step support of more funding without more accountability from teachers or administrators.

The result too often is a school system that spends more per student year after year and has less to show for it. Somebody could make a heck of a movie out of that. Unfortunately, as they say in Hollywood, tragedy doesn't sell.