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Bush's new law will make the education crisis worse
Selling schools to the highest bidder

February 22, 2002 | Page 5

ANNIE LEVIN explains why George W. Bush's new education law will only worsen the crisis in our public schools.

A COUPLE of years ago, the Republican Party was officially in favor of abolishing the Department of Education. George W. Bush has better public relations advisers. In a new education law that he signed last month, the Bush administration repackaged Republican attacks on public schools as "reform."

According to the White House, the Leave No Child Behind Act is "a comprehensive, bipartisan plan to improve overall student performance and close the achievement gap between rich and poor students in America's more than 89,599 public schools."

Bush had a simpler way of putting it at a Boston press conference, where he and "liberal" Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) traded fawning compliments. "I wish you could have seen the piece of legislation," said President Moron. "It's really tall. And I admit I haven't read it yet. You'll be happy to hear I don't intend to."

Still, Bush won praise from Democrats like Kennedy--and even children's advocacy groups and teachers' unions--for increasing federal spending on schools by 27 percent over last year.

But what's the money being spent on? Fixing crumbling buildings? No. Lowering class sizes? No. Better bilingual and special education? No again.

The answer is: testing, testing and more testing. The centerpiece of the legislation is a requirement that, beginning in the 2005-06 school year, public schools give standardized tests in reading and math each year from third to eighth grade, and once more between 10th and 12th grade.

Up to 95 percent of children will be expected to take the tests--including special education students. Immigrant students will be required to take tests in English if they have been in the country for at least three years.

The law sets a ridiculous target: By 2014, 100 percent of students will be expected to pass reading and math tests. This is a cynical ploy. Politicians know that there is no way this goal can be reached given the vast gap in funding between poor and rich schools.

But failure to meet the law's targets will put public schools on the path toward privatization--the real goal of the Bush administration all along. If a school district that receives Title I federal funds fails to raise standardized testing scores for two years in a row, then states have to allow students to transfer to "better" schools in another district.

There's a catch. "Failing schools" must use up to 5 percent of their Title I funds to pay for transporting students to other schools--and 15 percent of the money if no progress is made in the third year. In other words, the law will drain resources away from poor districts that most need help.

If a school fails to make progress for a fourth consecutive year, the state can step in with any number of "slash-and-burn" tactics--fire the entire staff, extend the school year, abolish the district.

After six years of failing to improve--and being bled dry of financial resources along the way--schools, and even whole districts, can be turned over to a private contractor or turned into nonunion charter schools.

This is education "reform," Bush-style: Set up hoops for the poorest schools to jump through, withhold the money that they need to meet the new standards, and prepare to sell them off to the highest bidder.

Testing is part of the problem

SUPPORTERS CLAIM that standardized testing is the only "scientific" way to measure the quality of schools. But as any teacher can tell you, standardized tests measure one thing--your ability to take a standardized test.

Studies have repeatedly shown that test results most accurately reflect not "intelligence" or achievement--but the social class of the students taking them.

In inner-city school systems, kids are set up to fail. Standardized tests are written in a formal style that students aren't familiar with, questions reflect middle-class experiences, and the results don't reflect a range of abilities that kids have, such as art or music.

But with "high-stakes testing" in states like Texas and Massachusetts, students who don't pass in 10th grade can't get a high school diploma--ensuring that millions of low-income students and students of color are denied a degree on the basis of biased tests.

Testing isn't a solution to the crisis in education. It's part of the problem.

How Bush "shuffled" his way up

GEORGE W. BUSH claims that he's doing disadvantaged kids a favor with testing--by holding them "accountable" to a "higher standard." Coming from someone who brags about his success in life despite his own bad grades, this is an insult.

"What is almost laughable about Bush's vision for the USA (United Standardized America) is that he, like a lot of rich kids then and now, was of course exempt from such robotic discipline," wrote Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson. "Bush has said, 'When we find children simply being shuffled through the school system without regard to whether they can read or write, we've got to hold somebody accountable.' Funny how a man who shuffled his way through entitlement now says our least entitled youth will be judged on whether they can be welded on the assembly line of a single test."

We should throw money at schools!

"WE'VE SPENT a lot of money in education, and a lot of it hasn't made a difference," George W. Bush said last month, pitching his new education law. Funny that Dubya doesn't apply the same standards to spending on the Pentagon! But the claim that "throwing money at the problem" won't fix public education is part of the right wing's ideological assault.

"People half consciously believe that schools ought to be able to equalize life opportunity, regardless of grinding poverty in one district, booming affluence in the next," says education writer Stephen Metcalf. "But that disparity isn't going anywhere soon. The big players now at the education table--some with a considerable financial stake in the new regime--believe that money is best spent on testing and textbooks rather than on introducing equity into the system."

The truth is that money is exactly what's needed to make meaningful reforms in public schools. As long as schools are mostly funded by local property taxes, we will have brutal inequality in our schools.

Wealthy school districts spend as much as three times more per student than poor districts spend. Amanda, a teacher at an inner-city school in Massachusetts, knows that this makes all the difference in the world.

"Our supply situation is so bad that teachers end up fighting over lined paper," she told Socialist Worker. "I don't think they have to fight over paper in the rich schools. One seventh-grade girl just wrote a letter to the principal that says, 'Our classroom is so dirty, and it hasn't been cleaned. I'm allergic to dust, and now my eyes are puffy and burning, and I'm sneezing. I promise I won't tell my mom about it, but please just clean the room.' How can we tell kids to take their education seriously and allow them to go to school in an environment like this?"

Opinion polls show widespread support for more spending on education. But the Bush administration wants the opposite--and Democrats refused to challenge its right-wing lies in the non-debate on the education bill.

It's up to us to mobilize to defend our schools--like the more than 1,000 students who demonstrated in Philadelphia last year to oppose a takeover of "low-performing" schools by the for-profit Edison Schools.

We won't let them sell our kids' future to the highest bidder.

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