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No Demagogue Left Behind

The dishonest assault on Bush's education reform.

Mar 29, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 28 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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FOLKS OVER AT the National Education Association headquarters are gloating. "Clearly, the ground on [No Child Left Behind] has shifted," said a statement released by the national teachers' union last week. "While publicly castigating NEA for what he called 'obstructionist scare tactics,' U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige is beginning to follow suggestions from the Association."

From the day it became law--January 8, 2002--Bush's education initiative promised trouble. Senator Edward Kennedy and Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, stood by, beaming with semi-forced smiles, while Bush signed the bipartisan bill. "The White House was eager to have George W. Bush and Sandra Feldman embrace," says a Kennedy spokesman, "and they did." But the NEAwas already rumbling its disapproval, and a short three weeks later, the odd couple's honeymoon was over.

Which, when you think about it, isn't the least bit surprising. The NEA, along with its political action committee, had donated $2.8 million to Democrats in the last presidential election cycle. The group has never endorsed a Republican for president.

And there's a lot to fight about. More than 1,000 pages long, No Child Left Behind lays out a scheme for educational improvement with a 12-year horizon. As a result, it's impossible to tell yet whether or not it is succeeding. When today's first-graders graduate, we'll know whether it worked. But the law's numerous testing requirements, tight compliance deadlines, and consequences for schools that fail to measure up--extra tutoring, then vouchers, then "reorganization"--are making beneficiaries of the status quo nervous even before many of the requirements kick in.

So the critics are agitating for modifications, and they've had some help from Secretary Paige. On February 23, Paige called the NEA a "terrorist organization," a choice of words he later conceded was "inappropriate" and for which he was "truly sorry." Still, insisted Paige, the "NEA's high-priced Washington lobbyists have made no secret that they will fight against bringing real, rock-solid improvements in the way we educate all our children."

Strong words. But they were immediately undercut when Paige and assistant secretary Raymond Simon began announcing a series of rewrites of the more controversial provisions of the No Child Left Behind law--each of which brought the legislation into line with an NEA demand.

The most recent alteration--the one that occasioned the triumphant press release quoted above--was a revision of the "highly qualified teacher" rule, which requires teachers to have a bachelor's degree or the equivalent in every subject they teach. New teachers at rural schools will be given an extra three years to comply, and current teachers will have until March 2007. Teachers who cover multiple subjects are also given a break. The requirements were hardly excessive to begin with--there were several options for alternative certification for experienced teachers--but they are now more "flexible," says Paige.

Faced with complaints that the "highly qualified teacher" rule was unduly burdensome, Bush's Department of Education was in a classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Kennedy, for one, has consistently lauded the provision as among the best features of No Child Left Behind. Now he will be able to say that the administration has gone soft on even the law's most basic components.

But the teachers' union hated the provision--it threatened their own--and now that it has been successfully dispatched, they can claim sway over the administration, and boast of a conquest that will stiffen their future demands.

After taking credit for Paige's other recent decisions to relax regulations governing the treatment of special-education students and non-native English speakers in compliance deadlines, the NEA's statement sets to work lobbying for future reforms: "Of course, much more needs to be done," it goes on, and then outlines a four-point plan for future changes, studded with the words "flexibility," "out-dated," and "workable."

Michelangelo is famously reported to have said that a good block of marble has a sculpture inside it, waiting to be revealed. The NEA seems convinced that inside No Child Left Behind lurk the same old federal-aid-to-education programs they're used to, but with more money attached. All that Bush's critics in the education establishment have to do is chip away at the special features of his plan until there's nothing left but the status quo underneath.

In fact, several leading Democrats reportedly voted for No Child Left Behind only after expressing the belief that the accountability provisions would go the way of the dodo, as did similar aspects of comprehensive school reform, national board certification, and other bygone waves of high-minded innovation, while the money would keep flowing.