W gets an F

President Bush has broken a lot of promises since he took office, but few are likely to have as much impact on the 230,000 children attending public schools in Sacramento as his failure to make good on the funding for No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal education act that Bush pushed through Congress in the early days of his administration.

As a “compassionate conservative,” Bush made education a major component of his campaign for the presidency. He promised real reform, including new tests, new rating systems for schools and new accountability to parents. Once elected, he made NCLB the centerpiece of his domestic agenda and won the support of Democrats in Congress by promising to wipe out the gap between rich schools and poor ones.

It seemed as if Bush really cared about our schools—until it came time to pay for his proposal. Once he’d pushed the act through Congress and trumpeted his commitment to education, Bush turned around and quietly cut the funding necessary to implement the program. Rather than the $5.8 billion needed, Bush budgeted about $1 billion—and slashed 60 other federal education programs while he was at it. The result has been that school districts all over the country have been saddled with yet another unfunded mandate, and students are going to suffer.

In a nutshell, NCLB requires schools to achieve “Adequate Yearly Progress” as defined by a set of new federal tests. (Readers interested in seeing how local schools fared in the assessment process can find information at www.cde.ca.gov/ayp.) Schools that fail to measure up are labeled deficient, required to provide students with extra tutoring and required to inform parents that they have the option of transferring their children to higher-achieving schools.

There are a number of potential flaws in this system, one of which is the dubious nature of standardized testing: When so much emphasis is placed on these exams, teachers have little choice but to spend most of their time teaching children how to pass the test rather than concentrating on real educational needs. In addition, there are plenty of problems with the way the federal program defines success. For example, because NCLB requires that schools demonstrate progress for all ethnic subgroups, a school with only a handful of students in a given group could “fail” simply because one of those students was absent on exam day.

Still, with education always a high priority among voters, it’s appropriate for the federal government to explore ways in which it can make a difference, and, for all its faults, NCLB has potential—if schools get the resources needed to prepare and implement the testing, hire tutors and make transfers a real and significant option.

With Congress now pressing the president to restore funding for the program, it’s time for Bush to prove his commitment to education. The president should either come up with the funding to make NCLB work or lift the mandates he’s imposed on our schools.