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The truth about school "reform"
Leaving poor kids behind

By Elizabeth Schulte | March 4, 2005 | Page 16

IN CHICAGO, students, parents and teachers are seeing for themselves what George W. Bush means by "No Child Left Behind." Your school is closed.

At hearings held earlier this month, hundreds of angry parents, students and teachers showed up to speak out against the closing of four Chicago schools. The schools--three elementary schools and one high school--are all in poor and minority communities. Some 1,100 elementary school children will be sent to find new schools next year.

"I'm not interested in their busing, and I'm not interested in having my son attend another school that will now be overcrowded," Lanice Williams, a parent at Howland elementary, told the Chicago Sun-Times when the closure plans were announced.

On February 23, about 250 rank-and-file teachers turned out to a protest organized by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Action Committee of the school board's vote to approve the closings.

"The closing of these four schools is just the tip of the iceberg," says Jesse Sharkey, a teacher at Senn High School and chair of the committee. "In Chicago, the Renaissance 2010 plan is going to change public education as we know it. It will introduce market schemes into the schools, it will create dozens of nonunion charter and for-profit contract schools, and it will further an educational system of haves and have-nots in which poor Black and Latino kids will continue to find themselves left out."

Renaissance 2010 is the initiative spearheaded by Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan to "fix" Chicago's struggling public schools. The plan will close some 60 public schools, and resurrect them as 100 charter, contract or district-run performance schools within five years.

About two-thirds of the new schools in the Renaissance plan will be contracted out to private management or become charter schools, one of the centerpieces of Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

Charters are public schools that receive public money, but are often managed by private companies that are allowed to operate outside the authority of local school boards. They have the freedom to make their own rules, including whether teachers are union or not.

There is nothing to suggest that charters are any more successful than existing public schools. In fact, more than 80 charter schools across the country were forced to close in 2003, largely because of poor performance and dubious financial dealings, according to a report last September in the New York Times.

But charter schools are just one facet of the many things wrong with Bush's plan for "reforming" our schools. Contrary to what some Democratic lawmakers suggest, it isn't simply a question of whether No Child Left Behind is "underfunded."

At its heart, Bush's school plan aims to punish--not improve--already under-funded and struggling public schools. That means threatening schools with closure if they fail to meet strict testing standards. In other words, schools in poor neighborhoods--which should be candidates for more government spending, not less--now have a target on their backs.

The strict restrictions imposed by No Child Left Behind--with its focus on standardized testing--mean that poorer schools, which are disproportionately in minority areas, are set up to fail. For instance, if a school's students who are learning English as a second language or are enrolled in special education classes fail to meet the federal Adequate Yearly Progress testing requirement, the entire school could be on the chopping block.

Under No Child Left Behind, all students must be proficient in reading, math and science by the year 2014--which sounds like a noble goal, but in practice is a set-up. A report issued earlier this week by National Conference of State Legislatures--which is made up of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers--argued that No Child Left Behind "creates too many ways to 'fail.'"

The Bush administration's real aims are different--as the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank that also fronts for the tobacco industry--made clear in its publication called School Reform News. "Being charter and contract schools, the new schools will be publicly funded, privately managed, and free of many of the restrictions that limit traditional school operations--including the teacher union contract," the institute said in response to Mayor Richard Daley's announcement of the Renaissance 2010 plan last October.

Daley, too, is championing the role of the free market in public education. "This model will generate competition and allow for innovation," he said. "It will bring in outside partners who want to get into the business of education. It offers the opportunity to break the mold. It gives parents more options and will shake up the system."

If Daley and the rest want to "shake up the system," they should try spending more money on poor schools. Illinois' education "funding gap"--the difference in education spending between wealthy and poor school districts--is second only to New York. According to a report released in October by the Education Trust, Illinois' highest-poverty districts receive an average of $2,026 less per student than wealthier districts.

The solution to this problem isn't starving districts of funds, closing down schools and firing union teachers. The solution is for the government to provide each and every public school with the money it needs to educate our kids.

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