Wednesday, April 20, 2005

How the lawsuit might just save NCLB

No Child Left Behind is in serious trouble. Supporters of the law will dismiss the NEA lawsuit and the actions of the Utah Legislature this week as all politics and no substance. But they're wrong.

According to the NYT:

... [L]aw professors said the plaintiffs would need only to prove that the law is even modestly underfinanced in order to prevail, because of the clarity of Section 9527 of the federal law, which was written by Republican lawmakers during the Clinton administration.

"Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the federal government," that section says, "to mandate a state or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act."

Look, let's face it: the goal of the law (conspiracy theories aside) is an admirable one. All students can -- and should -- be literate and numerate. African-Americans, Hispanics, bilingual students, special ed students, white students -- everybody -- will perform to a basic minimum standard. Yes, there's an overreliance on test but until someone comes up with a more reliable way to measure, we're stuck with them.

Bottom line: for too long-- by any measurement -- the education establishment has failed too many

But why did they fail? Were they lazy? Incompetent? Uncaring? I doubt it. Many believe -- though few will say -- that teachers are too blame. I disagree. So far, as a society, we have lacked the will to get it done. Period.

But NCLB represents a step in the right direction (albeit a very clumsy, inelegant, and abysmally executed step). The next step would be a massive infusion of cash. How can anybody not understand this? It's basic economics: you get what you pay for! To this point, we've put out expenditures sufficient to build a shack and told our teachers they failed because they didn't build a mansion.

Many times in the past, Jenny D. has challenged me: "How much is enough?" It's an excellent question and one that I'm studying in earnest right now. In Texas, the Legislature commissioned -- at no small expense -- an adequacy study. A team of researchers from Texas A & M (I'll spare you the Aggie jokes) recommended funding levels to achieve a 55% passing rate. Their formula was based on mountains of data from the Texas Education Agency and used rigorous, scientific data analysis. They determined dollar levels for different geographic areas and for different populations. The Legislature promptly ignored their findings, preferring instead to avoid raising taxes.

This is not hard to put into words. Put simply: This is our generation's great challenge. Every child will succeed, thrive, and be prepared for the complexities of the 21st century. It's not just political hyperbole; we can really do this.

President Bush has rightly put this challenge to the country. But unlike other presidents who challenged the nation (think Kennedy and the space race), Bush has issued the challenge but failed to write the check. The lawsuit filed yesterday might force him to do just that.

Chronicle blasts Paige; gives Spellings a free pass

Rod Paige's home paper, the Houston Chronicle, blasted him in yesterday's edition:
When Rod Paige was secretary of education, some critics characterized him as a frontman hawking administration policies crafted by his successor, fellow Texan Margaret Spellings, then a policy adviser to President Bush. But Paige seems to have been the guiding force behind the decision to pay commentator Armstrong Williams and his public relations firm $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Education Department's inspector general reported that Paige and his aides were the key supporters of a botched plan to get favorable coverage in the minority community. When revealed by USA Today, the pact spurred well-deserved criticism that bureaucrats were buying journalists.

"There are moments in life where one is left mouth agape at how decision-makers can show a lack of critical judgment," Secretary Spellings declared. "This is one of them."

Amen, Sister. But the Chronicle's editorial board missed the boat when they let Spellings and her current chief of staff of the hook.

...To her credit, Spellings said the contract was wrong and promised to fix the management problems that led to the Armstrong Williams fiasco. According to Paige's successor, "It is the secretary who must be careful about and is ultimately responsible for the signals that his/her office sends."
While Spellings has rightfully criticized Paige and Williams, she has not cooperated fully with her Department's own inspector general. She has made her chief of staff -- and apparent architect of the deal, David Dunn -- largely off limits to the inspector. How did the Chronicle fail to notice that? Doesn't that also leave your "mouth agape"?

Though some of the blame should be given to Spellings and Dunn, it's still amusing to read the harsh assessment of Paige:

It's unfortunate that one of [his] few original initiatives in office turned out to be so ill-considered. Perhaps it's a good thing Paige wasn't a more assertive secretary.


Monday, April 18, 2005

Stupid + ill-advised = Promotion!

I haven't been keeping up on the Armstrong Williams scandal lately. But I noticed this in a recent USA Today (via Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post):

[The Education Department's inspector general John] Higgins... found that David Dunn, a special assistant to President Bush, participated in at least four conversations about the Williams contract with Education Department officials last summer.

...During at least two of those conversations, Education officials voiced "strong" concerns about "the inherent conflict of Mr. Williams' role as both a public relations executive and commentator," the report says. The Education officials, deputy director of public affairs D.J. Nordquist and chief of staff Anne Radice, told the inspector general that Dunn "agreed with their concerns," the report says. Even so, the contract was renewed.

The inspector general's findings run counter to a statement made by Bush on Jan. 26, about three weeks after USA TODAY first disclosed the deal with Williams. At a news conference, Bush said of the contract, "We didn't know about this in the White House."

Woops! So it turns out they did know the White House -- as represented by Dunn -- did know that they were paying a journalist to say nice things about them. And yes, that is a violation of law.

But surely Dunn was punished, right? He's out of a job now, wondering where he went wrong, right? Uh, not exactly.

[Education Secretary Margaret Spellings] called the deal "stupid (and) … ill-advised. It showed a lack of judgment." Spellings subsequently hired Dunn as her chief of staff.

Remember, these are the people who are constantly reminding us that we are accountable, that there should be consequences for failure. But a guy makes a stupid deal that possibly breaks federal law and .... gets promoted?!?! Am I missing something?

Push becomes shove

Christian Science Monitor runs a story today on the "rebellions" against NCLB in three very different and unlikely places: Utah, Texas, and Connecticut:

Connecticut has announced it's suing the US Department of Education, claiming the law mandates changes without giving the funding to carry them out. The education commissioner in Texas unilaterally decided Washington's requirements were flawed, and she simply disregarded part of them - a kind of civil disobedience.

And Tuesday, Utah, the state that gave Mr. Bush his biggest win last November, is about to provide the most stinging rebuke yet to NCLB. In a special session, the state Senate is expected to pass overwhelmingly a bill to ensure that in a conflict between state and federal education regulations, Utah's rules will trump Washington's dictates. The House has already passed the bill, and if the Senate does as well, Utah is putting at risk $120 million it receives in federal education aid.

"The paramount question is who runs this show: Is it state and local government or Washington?" says state Sen. Thomas Hatch (R). "Are we going to let the federal government contribute a very small percentage of the education budget and dictate what we can or cannot do, or are we going to maintain control at the local level?"

The local rebellions come on the heels of an announcement by US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings that the department intends to exercise more flexibility than under her predecessor in addressing states' concerns about the law. NCLB requires annual testing in Grades 3 to 8 and sets out penalties for schools that fail to show "adequate yearly progress." In making the announcement, however, Secretary Spellings said there were certain "bright lines of the statute," such as reporting annual testing results by student subgroups, that "are not up for negotiation." This led some frustrated state officials like Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to refer to any new flexibility as "more rhetoric than reality."

Historically, there's always been tension between states and federal government on education reform. When President Clinton tried to implement new standards, he also met resistance, often from Democratic governors. Now Bush finds himself facing similar concerns from some Republican governors, including Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell.

The fact of the matter is there is no constitutional grounds for federal intervention in education. The courts have ruled that the feds can tie money to "results," however the feds choose to define those results. But if states forego the money, the feds lose any and all control they might have had.

Thus Ms. Spellings backtracking last week. But let's not be fooled: that was a PR move. We've seen consistently in Spellings' brief tenure that whenever there's trouble she talks about flexibility and local control. Everybody breathes a big sigh of relief and then she goes right on with her intractable ways.

Well, to indulge a cliche, push has come to shove. Somebody's about to blink.

Go ahead, hit your kid

God bless my backwards state. Yes, the Texas House has affirmed a parent's right to beat their kids. Luckily, the bill probably won't pass the Senate.

It's a shame the bill was sponsored by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) for whom I usually have a lot respect. Not on this one. Kudos to Rep. Alma Allen for pointing out the (apparently not so) obvious:

"I don't ever see a need to hit another human being. We only hit children because they are smaller than us," she said.

Since registration is required, here's the whole article (or go to for a login):

Pro-paddling bill sails through House

Under plan, prosecutors must show spanking is more than discipline

08:10 PM CDT on Monday, April 18, 2005

By KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – In case any hesitant paddle-wielding parent is confused, the Texas House just affirmed your right to use it on your kid's backside.

Or, if you're not around to administer the whipping, you can pass it off to an aunt, uncle, grandparent, neighbor or teacher without fear of prosecution, under legislation that passed the House without debate Monday.

It's OK just as long as the swats are administered in the interest of "reasonable punishment."

"Parents are saying, 'We want to make sure the state doesn't intervene when we're trying to discipline our child,' " said the bill's author, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston.

Bill opponent and fellow Houston Democratic Rep. Alma Allen, a former high school principal, called paddling a "hand-down from slavery, where people learned to control other people."

Ms. Allen's bill banning corporal punishment in schools is stuck in the House Public Education Committee. "I don't ever see a need to hit another human being. We only hit children because they are smaller than us," she said.

Under current law, Texas parents can already pull out the paddle as a means of disciplining their children.

If they're charged with child abuse, they can beat the rap if they prove it was simple discipline. Mr. Dutton's legislation shifts the burden to prosecutors to prove that the spanking was more than that.

Mr. Dutton, a lawyer, once defended a woman charged with child abuse after she whipped her teen granddaughter with a cord when she didn't come home all weekend.

"That grandmother's question to the judge was, 'What should I do? Should I send her to her room for timeout? ... Or should I do something drastic to try and turn her life around?' " he said.

The House passed similar legislation last session, only to watch it die in a Senate committee.

House members on Monday expounded on their own lives, wearing as a badge of honor the whippings they got – or were threatened with – as children.

"We didn't have alternative schools," said Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington. "We just had swats."


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