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A Federal Role in School Improvement?

Copyright © 1997, 2003 by David E. Ross

This is one of the very first commentaries I wrote for my Web site. In the six years since then, we have had a Presidential election. Another one approaches.

President Bush declared himself the "education president". But what has he really done for our students and their schools? With his "No Child Left Behind", Bush stole instructional time from our students with even more testing. Since the actual money from Congress is a mere fraction of what was promised, this testing has become another unfunded federal mandate. Test we must, because Bush's "knife at the throat" plan for educational improvement would remove paltry existing funds from those schools that do not test.

We must now look to 2004 and evaluate how Bush's challengers stand on the issues I describe below. These issues — first raised 20 years ago — are still quite valid.

6 November 2003

Recently, the need to improve education attracted the attention of both the President and Congress. However, this new interest is merely political with no real substance. Proposals by the President and the Republican majority in Congress are both wrong.

The President wants national testing. As a former elected member of the School Board in one of the finest school systems in California — public or private — I know that our children are over-tested. Every hour of testing represents an hour not learning. Further, each test represents another pressure to change curriculum. Teachers and administrators are pushed to make their students and schools appear successful by "teaching to the tests". In the process, important subjects that are not easily tested — critical thinking, creativity, aesthetic discernment — become de-emphasized. Children do not benefit.

The Republican majority in Congress claims public education will improve if the government issues vouchers or grants tax credits for paying tuition at private schools. While only private schools would directly benefit, public school supposedly would improve because of the "knife at the neck" inherent in this proposal. The two main problems with vouchers are the taxpayer subsidy to religion (by funding religious education in parochial schools) and the lack of standards imposed in many states on private schools. In any case, vouchers would not create competition between public and private schools as long as the latter do not have to employ credentialed teachers or enroll every student who applies (including those with learning disabilities or who merely lack motivation). Further, vouchers do not create fairness for parents who pay taxes but send their children to private schools. Public schools are funded according to enrollment or attendance; every time a child is enrolled in a private school, a public school loses any funding from his or her parents' taxes.

Yes, there is a role for the federal government in education. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued A Nation at Risk. Unlike the reports from many other Presidential commissions, A Nation at Risk contained substantive, realistic, and potentially effective recommendations. In the past 14 years, states and local school systems have implemented many of the recommendations that applied to them. Funding was increased in many states so that the school day and school year could both be lengthened. Curricular changes were implemented. High school graduation requirements were increased. Standards on both students and teachers were made higher.

Today, children who were in kindergarten when A Nation at Risk was published have already finished high school. However, no action has ever been taken on a single recommendation directed towards the federal government. If education is really important to our national leaders — Democrat and Republican — they should re-examine those federal recommendations. They are:

After 14 years, A Nation at Risk remains as valid today as it was in 1983, when it inspired states and local school systems to improve. I am still waiting to see such inspiration touch our national leaders. This is far more important to the improvement of education than either tests or vouchers.

18 October 1997
20 November 1997

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