Back when American conservatives took fiscal responsibility seriously (i.e., the early 1990s), they floated the idea of a constitutional amendment banning unfunded federal mandates. How the tables have turned! Today, the No Child Left Behind Act, which embodies the conservative approach to educational reform, is under legal attack for failing to provide any money for the requirements it imposes on states and school districts, at a time when local budgets are stretched to the breaking point.
In July 2003, the National Educational Association filed suit, citing a General Accounting Office study that found that states could spend upwards of $5 billion in order to implement the Act’s testing provisions – not to mention the money they would have to shell out to comply with its school voucher and teacher qualification provisions. These necessary expenditures, the suit holds, would run contrary to language in the Act that reads: “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal Government to . . . mandate a State or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act.”
In a response to the challenge notable for its blend of hostility and silliness, Secretary of Education Rod Paige declared: “We’ve assembled a coalition of the willing to help the kids who need it most; the NEA wants to assemble a coalition of the whining to hold kids back.”
To understand what’s going on in this dispute, we should look at the bigger picture. The two pillars of the conservative approach to educational reform are: 1) school vouchers, and 2) measurable standards for students and teachers. Conspicuously absent in this approach is a commitment to providing schools with the resources they need to improve. That absence is not an oversight. What it reflects is a consistent effort on the part of the hard right to undermine public education. Let us consider how vouchers and standards fit into this effort.
Euphemistically termed “school choice,” vouchers are held up as a means of helping kids in “failing” schools (which often are not failing at all) to be able to afford private schools. As most Americans seem to recognize, fortunately, the policy runs into a serious problem when it comes to real-world application – namely, only some of the kids at a given school would be able to receive vouchers. And how would this be decided? Well, since vouchers would cover only a portion of private school tuition, they would only help those families who can already afford most of the cost. That means they wouldn’t go to the students “who need it most,” as Paige would have us believe. Moreover, the money earmarked for vouchers would not be spent on actually improving public schools, where the poorest kids would remain.
But improving public education is exactly what the hard right does not what to have happen. In a report titled “The Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education,” People for the American Way shows how “a network of Religious Right groups, free-market economists, ultraconservative columnists and others . . . are using vouchers as a vehicle to achieve their ultimate goal of privatizing most or all of the public educational system.”
Meanwhile, even as conservatives talk about helping students afford private education, the administration is making it harder for college students to receive adequate financial aid. The New York Times reported on July 18 that the Congressional Research Service has calculated that the Department of Education’s new financial aid formula will reduce the Pell grant program, the nation’s largest, by $270 million, with 84,000 students unable to receive any award at all. Simultaneously, the right’s successful campaign to starve government of resources has produced budget deficits that in many states – California, Texas, Florida, and others – are leading to steep increases in public college tuition. So once again, we find that the young people who need help the most are getting left behind.
As for standards, they seem hard to argue with: Nobody’s opposed to quality, after all. There are two major potential problems, however, that need to be addressed in any effort to implement standards fairly and effectively. The first is that an overemphasis on standards can have a warping effect on the educational environment, with excessive amounts of class-time, or even entire curricula, devoted to the relatively narrow requirements of a standardized test. It may sound like a cliché, but kids need to learn how to think, beyond mastering a predetermined set of right answers, and that takes a certain amount of exploratory freedom in the classroom. That freedom, in fact, has traditionally been one of the main strengths of the American educational system and economy, as it fosters creativity, independence, and personal initiative. And it is precisely that freedom that is harder to achieve when teachers and schools are under the gun. We should emphasize standards, certainly, but also balance them against other educational values.
The deeper problem with the conservative idea of standards is that an all-sticks-no-carrots approach will produce the very problems it’s ostensibly meant to address (emphasis on the word “ostensibly”). What does one do with those students or teachers or schools that don’t measure up? It’s not enough to simply preach at them; adequate resources need to be provided to make sure that they can measure up. But again, that’s not part of the conservative agenda. Combine standards with a refusal to fund public education, and you get “failing” public schools, and thus an excuse to promote educational privatization. Another article in the Times, from July 31, shows how the consequences are already being felt by students themselves; it reveals that “growing numbers of students – most of them struggling academically – are being pushed out of New York City’s school system and classified under bureaucratic categories that hide their failure to graduate. . . . Those students represent the unintended consequence of the effort to hold schools accountable for raising standards.” The point here, however, is that that consequence might not be entirely unintended.
A central goal of the modern conservative movement has been to alienate people from government by arguing that their interests are fundamentally incompatible with it, and suggesting that it is not “their” government, but “the” government. A corollary strategy is to reduce people’s positive experiences of what government can do for them, such that they will be more receptive to attacks on the government. A person who has to pay a fee for the school bus, for instance, might begin to wonder whether the government should even be in the school bus business. (Some financially struggling schools are even beginning to charge students to participate in plays and musical programs, not to mention outsourcing their food services to places like Taco Bell and McDonald’s). Most dramatically, conservatives have come to embrace huge deficits as a means of starving the government of the money needed to pay for social programs. Thomas Frank of Harper’s magazine has called this the “train-wreck ideal” – the Right’s “belief that it can persuade the public that government is bad by giving us spectacularly bad government.” No conservative would admit, presumably, to wanting to give kids spectacularly bad public schools, but the ideological commitment to shrunken government appears to be accomplishing just that.
But there is cause for optimism. A study by Phi Delta Kappa International and Gallup found low levels of public support for the conservative approach to education. Specifically, the study reached seven major conclusions:
1. The public has high regard for the public schools, wants needed improvement to come through those schools, and has little interest in seeking alternatives.
2. The public sees itself as uninformed on the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, with 69% saying they lack the information needed to say whether their impression of the act is favorable or unfavorable.
3. Responses to questions related to strategies associated with NCLB suggest that greater familiarity with the law is unlikely to lead to greater public support.
4. The public is concerned about getting and keeping good teachers, thinks teacher salaries are too low, and is willing to see higher salaries paid to teachers teaching in more challenging situations.
5. The public continues to believe that closing the achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students is important but blames the gap on factors unrelated to the quality of schooling.
6. The public is not convinced that narrowing the achievement gap requires spending more money on low-achieving students.
7. A majority of respondents are opposed to vouchers and would oppose having their state adopt them, despite the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that voucher plans do not violate the U.S. Constitution.
Democracy depends on education, and not just for those who can afford it. Public education serves the interests of all Americans, and it can’t be done on the cheap. Of course, conservatives repeat the mantra that we shouldn’t “throw money at the schools.” (They don’t want to throw money at poor folks or the environment or health care, either, but seem much less strict when it comes to throwing money at the wealthy individuals and companies that bankroll their political power.) Nobody committed to public education is talking about wasting money; the idea is to invest in our schools and our children so that we can all reap the rewards down the road. Unaffordable? Hardly. We can’t afford not to.