Putting the “fun” in unfunded mandates

The U.S. Department of Education building in Washington is a great symbol of the confused state of American public education today. It is a large, Soviet-looking, concrete box. It conjures images of opaque bureaucracy, endless paperwork, and hyper-regulation. Huge banners plastered with the logo of the latest 10-year plan–No Child Left Behind–are hung over the windowless upper floors.

But lest the Department be taken too seriously, several ridiculous facades made to look like the little red schoolhouses of old adorn the entrances into the building, welcoming all the little children in.

Which of these images reveals the true nature of government education in America today? Well, both actually. It really is a pretty opaque bureaucracy, though most teachers and administrators really do want to welcome and help all the little children who come through the door. And the whole thing looks ridiculous.

This picture is also symbolic of the battles over No Child Left Behind itself. The law came out of that hideous building, but its image speaks in part to why educators are not taken very seriously outside their own circles. Rather than arguing out the merits of the federal role in education or the pedagogical value of standardized tests, the loudest complaints against NCLB have been that it is not “fully funded.” Teachers and their unions don’t want to shake up the system they’ve got going, so they boldly divert attention back to their default position: we need more money.

NCLB is, if anything, an aggressive funding initiative ostensibly designed to give Republicans some big-spending credentials among educators. NCLB is hugely funded, and is barely a mandate at all. Lots of new federal money for education is pouring into the states, and in return they have had to create their own accountability systems. Most states had already begun creating and/or implementing some form of standards-based accountability in the 1990’s, but the federal DOE didn’t bother to ask for much in return. Now, states are being told to show either some results for the federal dollars they get (generally less than ten percent of a state’s overall education spending), or there will be consequences, some of which include…more money.

In the state of Georgia, for example, the proposed state spending for testing for 2005 is $11,125, 646, or 1.68% of the entire state education budget. As a portion of the state testing budget, that amounts to a whopping $13.45 in test expenditures per Georgia public school student for the year. And those numbers leave out the fact that the Bush administration has proposed $10.2 million in federal spending just for testing next year. They have also proposed $658.1 million to help implement NCLB, and a total of more than $3 billion in federal aid to Georgia’s public education system, a 54% increase over the 2000 level.

So this fight is not over whether there is enough money to pay for NCLB, but whether school systems can continue to collect tax money at ever-increasing rates for educating some kids and forcing most to stay put in whatever school their address relegates them to and then say “thank you.”

Holding schools accountable to their main stakeholders–their students–is clearly a good idea, whether it takes the form of standardized higher-stakes testing or, even better, school choice. In order to assure that all children achieve and that all of them have a legitimate shot at going to college, we need to know which students need more help, and which areas to focus on, especially if it only costs less than 2 percent of the budget to get that data.

Teachers unions are fond of comparing their members to those in other professions, such as lawyers and doctors. Could doctors get away with turning out huge percentages of ill patients, avoid any sort of scientific oversight, and then blame the government for their failures? But of course the practice of teaching is not the same as the practice of medicine. Teaching is much more of a blend of science and art, so while standardized tests can never tell the whole story of a student or a teacher or a school, they are useful as guideposts to help constituents see how well their schools are performing in a broad sense. NCLB does not call for any specific teaching methods or behaviors – only for results. If it’s going to pony up so much money, the federal DOE has to trust teachers to accomplish those results, but it also has to protect its investment. Trust … but verify.

But “big education” refuses to have honest discussions over NCLB’s major contentions: that all students can learn if schools try hard enough, that teachers and schools are not somehow magically immune from expectations of results, and that the tax money in education budgets is meant to educate students, not to prop up school systems. No other business or profession would put up with groups who demand that worse performance be applauded and rewarded with more money. And so, teaching as a profession comes off as “full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous / Almost, at times, the Fool.”

We can argue over whether greater federal involvement in education is appropriate, or over the pedagogical merits of standardized tests, but to say that NCLB is breaking states’ banks is a joke.

Eric Wearne is a PhD student in educational studies at Emory University and a research assistant at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. His website is http://rationalcreatures.typepad.com.

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