By Mark J. Grossman
When it comes to education policy, President George W. Bush has it all backward. His No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) 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 schools on Long Island 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 factors do not create an environment 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 people false 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 other low-wealth districts can transfer to better-off ones. 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 few or no opportunities to transfer.
For urban schools, NCLB has become a logistical nightmare. In New York City, 40 percent of schools have been identified as in need of improvement, and about 8,000 students are now requesting transfers. In Chicago, the list of schools needing improvement 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 NCLB 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 is not just a problem in New York. In North Carolina, federal education aid is down $70 million, causing Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), one of the 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.
In New York, a recent report that three mostly poor, mostly minority districts on Long Island were named Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence would normally bolster the case that NCLB is, indeed, working. But the reality is that it took investments in such programs as after-school tutoring by faculty and 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 is a member of the board of education of the South County Central School District in East Patchogue, NY.
Mark J. Grossman, Guest Viewpoint: Bush’s education law leaves schools behind. , School Board News, 11-11-2003.
Reproduced with permission from the 2003 issue of School Board News. Copyright © 2003, National School Boards Association