Washington and Schools

As presidents, neither George Washington nor Abraham Lincoln spent time worrying about schools. Since the Constitution did not assign care for education to the federal government, that became the states’ concern. Until after the Civil War, however, the states pretty much left it to families and localities to decide how much or how little schooling they would provide. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory education law in 1853, and New York followed that example a year later. Not until after 1865, however, did the other states adopt compulsory attendance laws. Mississippi got in line only in 1918.

Washington became something like a national school board when Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Since then all presidents and presidential candidates have regularly announced that the welfare of the schoolsby which they usually mean public schoolsis a top priority.

When George W. Bush took office, he said he intended to be an education president, and on Jan. 8, 2002, signed into law the measure known as the No Child Left Behind Act. The text of this new law ran to 1,200 pages; but what Margaret Spellings, the present secretary of education, calls the core principles are few and clear enough. People who have gotten along well in life are agreed that the basic tool for advanced education and for success in a decent job is the ability to read and understand reasonably sophisticated materials. Nearly as important is some degree of mathematical literacy. Surveys have shown, however, that many students have not mastered these skills. The N.C.L.B. Act aims, therefore, to have every student proficient in reading and math by the academic year 2013-14. To be eligible for federal dollars, the 50 states must test the reading and math skills of students each year in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school. The states were also required to have fully qualified teachers in every classroom by 2006, but this goal was not reached.

In a speech last month President Bush said N.C.L.B. is already a proven success. Relying on data collected from a nationwide sampling by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Mr. Bush said, Fourth graders are reading better. The president did not note, though, that this same National Assessment had reported in February of this year that the testing of high school seniors in 2005 found that reading proficiency at this level had actually declined since 1992.

In other words, there is still a need for the N.C.L.B. Act, which is due to expire on Sept. 30. To be sure, Congress could extend the five-year limit on N.C.L.B. and put off reauthorization until 2009, after the presidential election. The Bush administration says, however, that it would like to see the law renewed this year; so also say the two powerful chairmen of the education committees in each chamber, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (Democrat of Massachusetts) and Representative George Miller (Democrat of California). That timetable will not be met unless some disputes are resolved. Last month, for instance, 57 Republicans, dissatisfied with red tape and cumbersome bureaucracy, proposed a change that would allow states to receive N.C.L.B. funds but would make the testing program voluntarythe carrot without the stick. These critics fear the present law allows for too much federal control of public schools. Many educators object that N.C.L.B. has displaced real learning with test preparation.

Senator Kennedy does not share those anxieties, but he does think N.C.L.B. deserves more money, as indeed it does. For programs to be administered by the Education Department in fiscal year 2008, the Bush administration proposes to spend $56 billion out of a total federal budget of $2.9 trillion. I am particularly concerned, said Mr. Kennedy, that the president has once again proposed inadequate funding for the law’s important reforms.

There is, however, one promising reform that will not make it through the education committees, because it is frowned upon by Senator Kennedy and Congressman Miller. President Bush is calling for a voucher program that would make it possible for low-income parents whose children are marooned in failing public schools to choose better schools, including private ones. That plan will not be adopted. Neither will the worthy idea of lessening the achievement gap between the schools in decaying cities and those in wealthy suburbs by providing substantial salary increases for gifted teachers who volunteer to work in substandard schools. But if many poor children continue to be left behind, reauthorization of the N.C.L.B. Act will keep alive a slender hope that this may not always be so.

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