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The Real Motive of NCLB

The scene was a community meeting in Newark.

The speaker was the federal education representative to New Jersey.

The subject was President Bush's landmark education law, No Child Left Behind.

But the talk turned to vouchers.

"If you don't want vouchers,'' the federal official, Daniel Cassidy, said at one point, "fix the public schools.'' It sounded like a threat. Critics of Bush's education legislation say it is.

No Child Left Behind became law just over a year ago. Passed with bipartisan support from Congress, the law has been hailed for trying to raise achievement among all students, particularly the poor and minorities.

But suspicion and complaints about the act have begun to grow.

Some say the president is failing to give schools enough money for the law to work. Others say the "get tough" approach could backfire if states lower standards to avoid having too many schools subject to the law's harsh sanctions.

Still others charge that the Bush administration's purpose in the No Child Left Behind Act is to gradually undermine confidence in public schools - and pave the way for children to attend private schools at taxpayer expense.

"Here they are deregulating everything else in the world, and laying all these regulations on schools,'' says Gerald W. Bracey, author of "The War Against Public Schools.''

"Why would they be doing it unless they had some ulterior purpose?''

The president had wanted the new law to include vouchers, but Congress balked. Federal education officials say the final law has no purpose other than to improve public schools.

"To those who are nervous this new law will lead to vouchers or wholesale abandonment of public education, they don't have as much confidence in the ability of public education to do better as we do,'' says Eugene Hickok, undersecretary of education.

The law measures schools through yearly testing of students. Any school that falls short for two years is labeled as "needing improvement.'' If the school gets federal money for disadvantaged students - as half of New Jersey schools do - parents are given the option of transferring their children to a better school.

That could present big problems for poor urban districts, such as Paterson, that have numerous schools on the "needs improvement'' list and no room for mass transfers. Smaller districts could have trouble too: Hackensack's one school deemed low-performing is the city's only middle school.

But federal officials insist that districts find a way to allow transfers, even if it means adding classrooms or sending children to other towns.

"Unless they're going to start letting kids in Paterson go to school in Wayne and Ridgewood, I see this as an attempt to create pressure for vouchers,'' says Stan Karp, a veteran high school teacher in Paterson who published an article about No Child Left Behind.

Sen. Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat who voted for the law, says Bush negotiated it in good faith. But, he noted that many in the administration strongly support vouchers.

Indeed, Hickok, the education undersecretary, came to Washington from Pennsylvania, where as state schools chief he tried to win approval for vouchers.

His boss, Education Secretary Rod Paige, also has voiced support for vouchers. Another high-level education official, Nina Shokraii Rees, penned numerous pro-voucher articles in a previous job with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

There's "an overwhelming drive toward vouchers" in the people around Bush, Corzine says. "The whole philosophical bent of the administration is to get into the private sector every possible government function.''

Voucher supporters got a boost when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Cleveland program that sends children primarily to religious schools.

Milwaukee and Florida also have voucher programs. But any big expansion of vouchers will require changes in state laws. In New Jersey, the Legislature would have to approve spending taxpayer money on private schools.

Opponents say vouchers drain money from public education, eroding that cornerstone of American democracy. Vouchers also spend public money on schools that have no obligation to report test results or be otherwise accountable to taxpayers, opponents say.

Supporters say vouchers can improve public schools by spurring competition. Poor children trapped in failing schools should have the same opportunity as wealthier families to choose private education, they say.

The No Child Left Behind Act has become one of the tools in the arsenal of New Jersey's voucher movement.

Cassidy, the federal official who spoke in Newark last fall, comes from that movement. Before joining the Bush administration, he was the point man on vouchers for Bret Schundler, a Republican and the former Jersey City mayor.

When the conservative Schundler lost the 2001 governor's race, the voucher movement in New Jersey seemed to have hit a dead end.

Instead, it has turned a corner.

Excellent Education for Everyone, the state's leading group promoting vouchers, has redoubled its efforts among African-Americans in poor, urban areas such as Paterson, Newark, and Camden. It doesn't hurt the group's cause that these cities have many of the 270 New Jersey schools labeled under the new law as "needing improvement."

That's why Derrell Bradford, spokesman for the voucher group, says, "No Child Left Behind is essentially pro-school-choice.''

"All of these parents have had the federal government come in and say, 'You know, the school your kid goes to is terrible,''' Bradford says. "They've also been told they can transfer their kids to better public schools. But there's no capacity'' in other public schools. "So you have this huge market opportunity right now.''

Another national voucher group, Black Alliance for Educational Options, has directly benefited from the new law. It won a $600,000 federal grant to "educate parents about the choices available to them" under No Child Left Behind. In a telling statement announcing the grant, the alliance chairman, Howard Fuller, draws no distinction between informing parents about the law and the group's overall mission of promoting vouchers among African-Americans.

"These types of contributions - this grant - enable us to continue to fight these fights for these parents and children,'' Fuller says.

No Child Left Behind's stated aim is to help these same minority children.

The Bush administration has "a serious commitment to the 90 percent of kids who are in the public schools, particularly to those who are chronically failing," Cassidy says. "This is not a back-door approach" to vouchers.

The act requires schools to break out test results for historically underachieving groups - the poor, minorities, disabled, and limited-English speakers. Every year, every school must show improved performance by every group.

That's a laudable goal, critics say, but the law punishes schools even when most children are succeeding.

When even one group of students fails to improve for two years, the whole school becomes subject to penalties. After five years, the school can be closed and reopened with a new staff, converted into a charter school, or turned over to a private education company.

"Why do you label a school as failing because five or 10 kids out of 500 are not making adequate progress?'' says David Shreve, senior committee director of the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

New Jersey's schools chief, William L. Librera, says he supports the law's goals. But he says there will be "serious problems'' if federal funding fails to increase as the state adds more tests.

Federal officials say they substantially increased education spending last year, but will keep the level the same this year. It's up to states to spend money wisely, they say.

Paige, the U.S. education secretary, also defends the requirement to hold entire schools accountable for the persistent failure of some students.

"We know this is a tough new law - and it should be,'' Paige says. "For far too long, far too many children fell through the cracks.''

— Maia Davis
Education law deepens debate
North Jersey Media Group
Jan. 21, 2003


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