Standing Up for Public Education


11-28-07, 12:30 pm

“We can’t live with this for another five years.”

These words from Jerry Jordan, president of the 17,000 member Philadelphia local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT Local 3) captures the mood of educators across the country as the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) comes up for re-authorization in the current session of Congress. The law, originally passed in 2002, is the Bush Administration’s response to rising demands for an increased federal role in support of public education. But, after five years, growing numbers of Americans are deciding that the administration did not “get it right.”

The law has generated widespread frustration and resentment among teachers and administrators at the state and local level, but the opposition now goes beyond educators. Numerous polls suggest that dissatisfaction with NCLB deepens as parents and others learn more about the law and its effects. As early as January of 2004, surveys suggested that NCLB was not what people wanted from the federal government. At that time, an Opinion Research Corporation poll found that over half (52%) of those responding would use federal funds to reduce class size, a goal not included in the law. On the other hand, a large majority (70%) said they would oppose taking money away from their own child’s school, should the school be classified as “failing.”

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that pollster Monty Neill, director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, found “growing resistance” to NCLB in December 2006. By May of this year a survey of over 1,000 adults by Scripps Howard News and Ohio University found that nearly 2/3 of those responding wanted the law either rewritten or abolished and that the more people learn about its provisions, the more likely they are to oppose it.

So, what are the problems with NCLB? A summary of its provisions would read as follows: It requires schools to meet, each year, increasingly unrealistic goals in reading and math, as measured by standardized test scores. The threatened sanctions for failing to meet the goals, are punitive and not likely to result in school improvement This is resulting in narrowing the curriculum as schools focus on preparing for the tests and are forced to reduce instructional time for “non tested” subjects such as social studies and the arts. At the same time, the law provides for little or no support from Washington for the considerable efforts demanded of schools in order to meet the goals. In other words, NCLB amounts to one enormous “unfunded mandate.”

All of this forces one to wonder. Could NCLB as presently written be part of the long range plan of the administration to undermine public education? If the law’s harsh provisions result in more schools being branded “failures,” could that lead to an exodus from the public schools into the proliferating charter schools or religious or other private “academies”? Could the educational crunch currently facing post Katrina New Orleans or the proliferation of charter schools in Philadelphia represent outcomes envisioned by the Bush team? And, could the law generate such frustration with the federal government’s clumsy attempt to influence education policy, that it causes a “backlash” movement opposing any federal role?

We can not say for sure, but what seems clear is that NCLB needs major revision and that the expanding dissatisfaction with the law presents an opportunity as well as a challenge. The current Congress is not the same one that passed the original version of the law. While the 2006 election was not exactly a referendum on NCLB, the changes wrought by the voters in that election have created an opening that supporters of public education cannot afford to miss.

This brings us to the key role that the two school employee unions are playing in this process. The unions can, for instance, use their organizational structures to mobilize their members. Working teachers and their unions, The NEA and the AFT, have expressed some doubt that proposals now in Congress for amending the law will address their primary concerns. Both organizations have campaigns in progress aimed at urging their members to contact legislators and express their views. They have urged – and organized – their members to let legislators hear their voices. At their national meeting last July, the NEA distributed an “Action Guide” to members with the title “NCLB; It’s Time for A Change.” This folder contained a wealth of useful information about the problems with the law. The NEA takes sharp issue, for example, with the “single snap shot fill in the bubble” test scores as the basis for assessing student – and school – progress. It also notes that the federal class size reduction program, which originally provided $4.1 billion to hire some 37,000 teachers, was eliminated under NCLB. The AFT’s American Teacher reports that AFT members have organized Activists for Congressional Education (ACE) committees across the country to meet with senators and representatives.

In addition to organizing, bringing the teachers’ point of view into the mix is an important contribution. The NEA literature, for instance, notes some of the problems with NCLB’s stated goal of putting a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom.

The NCLB teacher quality mandates are overly focused on “content” knowledge… and overlook the importance of knowing how to teach, of presenting information effectively and connecting with an increasingly diverse student population… The rigid “highly qualified” requirements force too many teachers and paraprofessionals to clear a succession of hurdles, and they are driving some out of the profession, making it even more difficult to recruit and retain quality educators.

Another union contribution to the debate is the NEA’s explanation of the history of federal legislation regarding education. As their literature states, NCLB is actually a revision – a drastic revision, but still a revision – of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Many of us use the term “Title I,” for example, without remembering that it refers to a part of that law. The ESEA, was passed as a result of the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. It established the precedent for a supportive federal role in public education and it has funded Title I and other programs. The most destructive parts of NCLB, on the other hand, can be seen as part of the right wing attack on Civil Rights, but there is more to this story. The NCLB law, itself the result of political deals and trade-offs, retained programs such as Title I and, in fact, includes some progressive additions. For example, it strengthens the rights of homeless children to attend local public schools, as well as of English language learners and special education students. (In fact, the name of the law was hijacked by the Bush Administration from the Children’s Defense fund slogan “Leave No Child Behind”.)

Therefore, simply abolishing NCLB is not the goal of supporters of public education. The original character of the 1965 law needs to be restored and further improvements made. In the first place, that means providing federal funds in amounts necessary to insure that teachers and students in every school district have class sizes that make real teaching and learning possible. The “teacher quality” and testing provisions also need major revisions in order to make the federal role in education a supportive one.

With the ESEA/NCLB due for reauthorization in the coming year, now is the time for educators, parents, students and all those who support equitable quality public schools to make their voices heard. If Americans have one nearly universally shared experience, going to school is it. Despite the confusion sowed by well publicized campaigns for vouchers, religious schools, charters and other “alternative” options, the fact is that around 90 percent of American young people attend public school. The fact is that, while well aware of the work still needed to fulfill the promise of public schools – full funding for every school, breaking down barriers of race, class and geography that students face – most americans support the concept of equitable, universal, state supported education. It is an urgent issue for the majority of Americans. We can make a start by making sure Congress gets ESEA/NCLB right this time. For more information see:

American Federation of Teachers – National Education Association – People for the American Way –

--Ben Sears is labor editor of Political Affairs. Send your letters to the editor to