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Vermont Holds Town Meeting on NCLB

Congressman Bernie Sanders hosted a town meeting today titled, “Defending Public Education.” The meeting examined the recent escalation of attacks on public education and explored what can be done to preserve an educational system which provides equal educational access for all children and young people. Sanders was joined on the panel by Rep. George Cross, Chair, Vermont House Education Committee; William J. Mathis, VSSE (VT Society for the Study of Education); Angelo Dorta, President Vermont NEA; Steven Jay Gross, VSSE Senior Fellow; Rik Manahan, State Board of Education; Laura Soares, Vermont School Board Association; and Jay Nichols, Vermont Principals’ Association.

Sanders delivered the following statement:

I want to thank all of you for coming out tonight, and the panelists who are here with us. I also want to express my gratitude, and the thanks of people throughout this state, for the devotion and excellent work that Vermont’s educators do. It seems that there is not a day that goes by when people in education are not attacked for one thing or another. I think that’s unfortunate. As someone who has visited dozens and dozens of schools throughout this state I know that you will agree when I say that public education is far from perfect and that we can and must do better. But I hope that you will also agree with me when I say that there are thousands of educators, administrators and staff of all kind who do their jobs with an extraordinary amount of love, concern and very high quality for the children of our state – and that we very much appreciate what they do.

The reason for this Town Meeting on Education is pretty simple. We cannot have a vibrant democracy, a free society and a strong economy unless we a high quality public educational system open to all students – regardless of income, race, disability or any other factor.

One of the problems that public education in Vermont and elsewhere has is that while we hear plenty of criticism, some of which may be valid, we don’t hear enough about some of the very positive accomplishments of public education.

We take it for granted, and do not boast about it, that millions of young people in our country who come from families who don’t have a lot of money, and I include myself growing up in that category, have received high quality educations that have transformed their lives and enabled them to achieve the dreams their parents had for them. We take it for granted, an do not boast about it, that in Vermont and throughout the country kids from different walks of life, different backgrounds, come together, learn about each other and the families they come from, and learn to appreciate diversity. We take it for granted, and do not boast about it, that in schools in Vermont and throughout our country educators are having success stories with kids who walk in the door who are literally hungry, and whose parents may be violent or dysfunctional. These are some of the realities that public education deals with. And they DO deal with it.

As many of you know, President Bush and his Administration are moving forward aggressively to privatize or partially privatize many of the public institutions and programs that have provided high quality services to Americans for decades. Included in that effort is: Social Security, Medicare, Air Traffic Controls, significant parts of the United States Military, the postal service and the Veterans Administration – to name a few. As everyone in this room also knows, they have their sights on public education as well.

Many educators believe, in fact, that President Bush’s so-called “No Child Left Behind Act” is part of an effort to destabilize public education and move it to privatization. The mechanism is to create goals and standards that cannot and probably should not be achieved while, at the same time, provide grossly inadequate funding for the program – so that it is very difficult for schools to do what they are being asked to do. Interesting, a front page article in the New York Times today (which we have distributed) discusses a new report from the bi-partisan National Conference of State Legislators. Let me quote from that article.

“Concluding a year long study on the effectiveness of President Bush's sweeping education law, No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers drawn from many states yesterday pronounced it a flawed, convoluted and unconstitutional education reform initiative that had usurped state and local control of public schools.

Further; “It said the law's accountability system, which punishes schools whose students fail to improve steadily on standardized tests, undermined school improvement efforts already under way in many states and relied on the wrong indicators. The report said that the law's rules for educating disabled students conflicted with another federal law, and that it presented bureaucratic requirements that failed to recognize the tapestry of educational challenges faced by teachers in the nation's 15,000 school districts.

"Under N.C.L.B., the federal government's role has become excessively intrusive in the day-to-day operations of public education," the National Conference of State Legislatures said in the report, which was written by a panel of 16 state legislators and 6 legislative staff members.

“Several education experts said the panel had accurately captured the views of thousands of state lawmakers, and local educators. If that is so, the report suggests that the Bush administration could face continuing friction with states and school districts as the Department of Education seeks to carry out the law in coming months.”

In terms of funding, President Bush has completely reneged on his promises to the No Child Left Behind program. While he has managed to find hundreds of billions in tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires he has grossly under-funded the program. While asking school districts to do more and more in terms of providing bureaucracy, testing and other costly demands, he has provided $27 billion less than he promised and, in this year’s budget, he would shortchange children and schools by another $12 billion - $9.4 billion of which will come out of Title I programs – programs designed to close the achievement gap between low-income and other students.

Setting aside its now-chronic under-funding ($39 billion below its authorized levels since its enactment in 2002), there are other very serious aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act. Many educators are concerned that the No Child Left Behind approach, as it is now being implemented, undermines the creative elements of education and encourages “teaching for tests” and rote learning – not necessarily the qualities we want to emphasize in a democratic society. While there are private testing companies that are thrilled with this turn toward more and more testing, I am not convinced that it is in the best interest of our children.

I look forward to hearing from our panelists and then from you in the audience about your ideas on the state of public education.

— Congressman Bernie Sanders
Bernie Buzz


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