Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Is NCLB a progressive law

I want to revisit the discussion that's been going on here recently about the role of the national government in education.
Eduwonk recommended an article essay aptly entitled "Education and American Federalism" by Leo Casey. It's an excellent read and it reinforced in my mind why I'm loath to reflexively side with NCLB opponents on states' rights grounds:

[C]ivil rights for African-Americans [is the most obvious, but not] the only area in which the federal government has been the avenue for progress in American society. Virtually every important civil liberties case in the 20th century has been against state and local government, and brought about through the federal government judiciary. New Deal economic regulation of corporate power and establishment of the workers' right to organize, environmental legislation, abortion rights and other civil rights for women and disabled people, and so on: the federal government has been in the lead.

Indeed. The federal government's role in the last 70 years (yes, it started with our beloved New Deal, my fellow progressives) has increased tremendously, moving into many areas previously left to the states. The federal government has, usually (Casey pointed out several notable exceptions), moved to protect the disempowered and thus can be said to have acted progressively. So, yes, I can see why progressives would think No Child Left Behind is a progressive law. I get the reasoning.

There's one problem, though, and it's the elephant in the room that no one seems to want to talk about any more: money.

Before you roll your eyes and groan and click away from this page, ask yourself this question: what does a child living below the poverty line in South Texas (or the South Bronx or rural Wyoming for that matter) really need in his or her school? Do they need more tests or more resources? Do they need books, computers, tables, desks, and new facilities (and NOT portable buildings which are the latest necessary fad in school architecture) or more tests? Do they need increased funding so that their schools can attract better teachers or more tests? I could go on but you get the point.

It's simple economics, really. You get what you pay for. We're going to get some really good tests and probably some really good test scores in places that didn't have them because that's where the dollars are flowing. But we'll still have high teacher turnover, leaky roofs, portable buildings, and out-of-date textbooks and technology. We will get what we pay for.

I've been following very closely the school finance debates in Texas lately and I'm sick of hearing that the school districts could do things more efficiently. Of course they could. (The Legislature could be more efficient, too, but don't get me started on that.) But consider this: on average, 85% of school money goes for teacher salaries. And we know how low those are in every state. The bottom line is that education's bottom line is suffering. And as long as states have to stretch already tight budgets to pay for more underfunded federal mandates (read: tests), that bottom line will only get worse. Meanwhile, the roofs are still leaking, the teachers are still underpaid, and the textbooks are getting more out of date by the day. As long as that is true, no education legislation that fails to address the fundamental problems of inadequate and inequitable funding can truly be called progressive.

I'd really like a progressive federal education law. If I ever see one, I'll be the first to support it.
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