by Mark J. Grossman.
When it comes to education policy, President George W. Bush has it all backward.
His new No Child Left Behind Act threatens to withhold federal education dollars from underachieving schools. But the reality is that money — or the lack of it — is the prime reason most schools underachieve in the first place. In fact, Bush’s goal of increasing test scores in low-performing schools would be better served by increasing aid to underachieving schools.
Just look at the recently released list of 25 Long Island schools that didn’t make the grade. With few exceptions, the schools cited are in communities with relatively high poverty rates, low property wealth and lower per-pupil spending than the region’s average. Less money means fewer resources, lower-paid faculty, older textbooks and larger class sizes. Those are not environments conducive to pumping out Westinghouse scholars.
The situation is exacerbated here in New York with a state-aid funding formula that few dispute is unfair to low-wealth districts, along with a Balkanized tax distribution system that clusters huge amounts of property tax dollars in a few select school districts. It’s a structurally unsound system that creates “haves” and “have-nots” among neighboring districts.
And it’s to the parents of mostly the “have-not” school districts whom Bush, through his legislation, gives false expectations and hopes when he says that students will be able to transfer to higher-performing schools if theirs don’t make the grade. The devil is in the details, which state that students can transfer “within their district” when their home school fails.
It doesn’t mean that a child from Wyandanch can transfer to Half Hollow Hills or that a child in Hempstead can transfer to Garden City. All it does say is that a child who goes to a so-called failing school can transfer to another school — a school, no doubt, with the same economic burdens and challenges — within his or her own district, but only if there is one. That’s because most Long Island school districts have a single middle school and a single high school and just one, or very few, on the primary level.
The reality on Long Island is that there will be little or no opportunity to transfer.
For urban schools, No Child Left Behind has become a logistical nightmare. In New York City, 40 percent of schools are on the failing list and about 8,000 students are now requesting transfers. In Chicago, the failing list comprises 60 percent of the system’s schools, resulting in 19,000 students entitled to apply for just 1,000 seats in better-performing schools. These already overburdened city school systems will now be forced to play an annual game of musical chairs with students vying for a few choice slots.
Bush touted No Child Left Behind as a historic boost in aid for schools that achieve. Sadly, those promises were never fulfilled. Federal aid to New York State schools is down $640 million, including $16.5 million earmarked for Long Island. That’s an average cut of nearly $140,000 per Long Island school district.
This not just a New York problem. In North Carolina, for example, federal education aid is down $70 million, causing Democratic Sen. John Edwards, one of the congressional negotiators who helped craft the legislation, to now become one of its biggest critics. Consider that even Republican governors in Nebraska and Louisiana — GOP allies of President Bush — have said they are willing to dump the legislation and forgo the concomitant federal aid just to be relieved of the program’s administrative burdens.
Here at home, a recent report that three mostly poor, minority districts on Long Island were named Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence would normally bolster the case that No Child Left Behind is, indeed, working. But the reality is that it took investments in programs such as after-school tutoring by faculty — personalized, targeted and expensive one-to-one and small-group instruction — to realize this success. Cut the aid and you cut the chance that these successes can be sustained.
Mark J. Grossman, a member of the South Country Central School District Board of Education, runs a Bohemia-based public relations firm.
Mark Grossman, Bush’s Education Law Leaves Schools Behind.
Newsday, October 9, 2003, Page A44.