If anything was clear about the will of the American people in the last presidential election, it was their concern for education. In poll after poll, Americans said they wanted their new president to address the issue. Be careful what you wish for, America. It looks like you're going to get it.

George W. Bush differs in some important ways from his recent Republican predecessors, who recommended abolishing the federal Department of Education altogether. Bush has proposed an increase in federal education spending--one of the largest percentage increases of any of his cabinet-level departments. He has thrown a spotlight on the importance of early literacy and reading. He has brought needed attention to the gap in standardized test scores between black and Latino versus white students.

But the devil is always in the details, and critics of Bush's proposed education plan say his agenda threatens to obliterate any good instruction in the nation's most challenged public schools; to push thousands of low-performing students out of school altogether; to scare off the most creative educators during a teacher shortage; to divert funds meant for poor students or English-language learners; and to take several small but sure steps toward privatizing public education. Critics say his plan is based on politics not pedagogy, and is guaranteed to drive a wedge even further between the education of white students and their black and Latino counterparts.

Bush's budget proposal increases funding for K-12 education by $1.9 billion in 2002. That amounts to a whopping $40 per public school kid. In terms of the percentage of federal government funds that go to education, the United States actually spends less than it did 20 years ago, thanks to inflation and steady annual reductions during the '80s. Under the Bush plan, the United States would spend a little more than two cents of every federal taxpayer dollar on education. Defense gets a quarter.

Democrats in Congress have called Bush's bluff when it comes to funding, and education bills in both the House and Senate call for greater spending than Bush has proposed. Democrats also have fought vehemently to keep private school vouchers out of any education bill. But many of the most insidious and far-reaching proposals in Bush's plan are emerging unscathed from negotiations--high-stakes testing top among them. And whatever the final education bill looks like, it's worth remembering what's on Bush's wish list. These proposals probably will appear again, likely under a softer spotlight than the one shone on a first-term president in his first 100 days.

With the Democrats negotiating some compromises, the stage is set for a Rose Garden signing of what will surely be hailed as a bipartisan education bill. When Bush first released his education blueprint, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) gushed about how Democrats and the president saw eye-to-eye on education. "There are some areas of difference," Kennedy said after a January meeting with Bush, "but the overwhelming areas of agreement and support are very, very powerful."

Bush's grand plan for closing the achievement gap between minorities and whites, between poor students and "their more advantaged peers," is high-stakes standardized testing. His proposal calls for annual testing in reading and math of every student in the country in grades three through eight. "Schools, districts, and states that do well will be rewarded," says No Child Left Behind, the blueprint for Bush's education agenda. "Failure will be sanctioned."

Determinations of success or failure will be based on one number: aggregate standardized test scores. Schools that fail to raise test scores will lose federal Title I funds, originally instituted to offset the effects of poverty on education. In a sort of reverse Robin Hood, schools that continue to do poorly will lose more money, as students are given $1,500 tickets out in the form of vouchers. Schools that improve test scores will get bonuses.

It's clear that urban schools and minority students take the biggest hit under Bush's plan, as schools try by any means necessary to get test scores up. Such efforts have included narrowing instruction, cheating, pushing students into special education classes, or forcing them out of school altogether. Bush's threat of lost Title I funds for schools that don't improve won't even apply to middle-class suburban school districts, which don't receive Title I funding. And Bush's promise of choice for public school students is empty for all but the rich. Bush will up the limit from $500 to $5,000 on tax-free Education Savings Accounts, a move that subsidizes private school tuition for those able to put away that much.

Students in schools that can't move test scores up will get $1,500 vouchers to spend at Kaplan Inc. (which once limited itself to helping college or graduate school hopefuls prepare for admissions exams, but in the age of high-stakes testing has found a new market in the K-12 crowd) or other tutoring services. The $1,500 vouchers are more in some cases than what the local school receives per child under Title I.

While Bush says struggling schools will be helped to improve before they lose funding or students via vouchers, the only earmarks in his 2002 budget summary are an increase of $459 million under the Title I program "to turn around failing schools" and $400 million to do the same for "low-performing" schools. That's about 2 percent of the federal spending on education to improve reading scores among 65 percent of all black students and 60 percent of Latinos. "These schools won't do better because they don't have any capacity to do better," predicts Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, a group that opposes high-stakes standardized testing.

Under a compromise plan worked out in the Senate, students will also be able to use vouchers to transfer to other public schools, but only in the same district. If the feds forced states to allow inner-city students to attend schools in well-endowed suburbs, some basic funding inequities might begin to be addressed. But Bush hasn't dealt with issues that should trouble even supporters of vouchers--whether they're going to pay private school tuition, a tutor or transportation to another public school--such as the effect they'll have on students left behind in "failing" public schools.

The effect of Bush's testing plan will be nothing less than a total routing of curriculum and instruction in schools across the country, and schools serving poor and minority students will be under pressure to boost scores fast. "Teachers teach to the test in an effort to get the scores up to avoid the bad consequences," says Neill, who adds that the tests used tend to measure lower-level skills and rote memorization and undermine teachers' efforts to make sure that kids really understand concepts and can apply knowledge in different contexts. "This kind of narrow teaching to the test dumbs down curriculum where it's good, and certainly doesn't improve it where it's not good."

Indeed, just as Bush proposes his testing jihad on K-12 education, the number of colleges and universities choosing to make standardized admissions exams optional has grown to more than 380 nationwide. In February, the president of the University of California system proposed eliminating SAT scores as a requirement for admission, saying that an overemphasis on admissions exams had led to the "educational equivalent of a nuclear arms race."

At the K-12 level, the race is on and promises to heat up, thanks to Bush. Last year states spent $400 million on designing, administering and scoring standardized tests. Bush's proposed budget would pay $320 million in federal funds to help states design and implement tests. Just 14 states--nearly all of them in the South or Southwest, many with the worst education records in the nation--currently test students every year in reading and math from third through eighth grade. The price students pay with lost time for meaningful instruction--because they are taking practice tests or actual tests or being drilled excessively on a small number of concepts that appear on the test--is probably the most damaging.

Neill says that in high-stakes testing states like Texas, "You can go in a school and the reading is all short passages, the length of what appears on the test, followed by multiple-choice questions. The worst is when kids are literally taught, 'Don't even read the passage: Go to the questions and look at the answer options, and then go back for what looks like the correct thing.' As test coaching for something like the SAT, this actually makes sense. But to teach someone to read this way is crazy."

In other parts of the country, teachers spend inordinate amounts of time teaching students what similes and metaphors are, or how to infer things from a passage--worthy if fairly trivial skills that have become staples in reading programs because they represent such a large proportion of questions on standardized tests. There have been stories of cheating by students, teachers and administrators. Companies have made--and then tried to cover up--mistakes in scoring tests. Huge failure rates on high-stakes exams have topped headlines. A third of the 24 states that have implemented high-stakes graduation tests are retrenching: States have shortened tests, eliminated more difficult questions and lowered passing scores. Rarely do significant resources flow to schools to help them meet new standards. Tests have prompted civil rights complaints in Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.

Bush likes to point to Texas as proof that demanding accountability through test scores improves education. Bush touts huge test score gains on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), particularly for minority students, and boasts stable dropout rates. But Walt Haney, professor of education at Boston College, found that test score gains only show up on the TAAS; Texas' scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have remained constant, and scores on a Texas college readiness test actually plummeted at the same time TAAS scores went up. Moreover, the number of students counted as special education students--whose scores don't factor into a school's accountability rating--nearly doubled in Texas between 1994 and 1998. The number of students taking the GED to avoid TAAS has shot up. And six of the worst 14 big-city graduation rates nationwide are in Texas.

Testing is not the only harmful provision of the Bush education plan. Immigrant students take another hit when it comes to bilingual education, for which Bush wants to freeze funding in 2002, despite surging enrollment in the Latino community. Bush proposes a three-years-and-you're-out rule for immigrant students in bilingual-ed programs. Three years is a number that people are "pulling out of their hats," says Angelo Amador, national policy analyst for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "There's no data that support that number. Some kids learn English in a year; some take five."

What most concerns MALDEF, Amador says, is Bush's proposal to fund bilingual education through block grants, offering local districts "flexibility" in how they spend bilingual-ed funds, as long as they improve test scores. Bush has proposed entering into "charter agreements" with states, in which they would be free to spend bilingual-ed funds and Title I money--currently targeted to low-income and low-achieving students--how they see fit, as long as they meet specific goals for increased student performance on standardized tests. "If you have x amount of money, and you have to spend it on books for bilingual education or new uniforms for the football team that has been winning the state championship every year, some states might decide to go with the football uniforms," Amador says. "We want to make sure that there is accountability as to where the funding is being spent."

Amador says test scores can be manipulated too easily to provide any guarantee that money is reaching students or that students are learning. He notes that in states with high-stakes testing, low-performing Latino students have been pushed into special education classes or out of school altogether in an effort to keep their test scores from counting toward a school's aggregate scores. In states that have experimented with vouchers, 90 percent of Latino parents chose to keep their children in a "failing" public school. And he says the federal government is wrong to assume that states will do right by poor and minority students once federal regulations disappear. "States have already been found by their own courts to be in breech of their own constitutions because they have not spread education funding proportionally," Amador says.

The Center for Law and Education has been fighting a proposal similar to Bush's "flexibility" provision since it was introduced in Congress last year. Director Paul Weckstein says that trading flexibility for improved test scores, called the "Straight A's" provision, "is like saying, 'Send your child to a hospital. We're getting rid of all standards of care, we're getting rid of all FDA standards about how drugs should be administered, but have no fear, because the hospital has promised to reduce its overall mortality rates.' That's the trade-off."

How could Bush really improve education? He could force states to provide not only equitable funding, but resource comparability, says John Jackson of the NAACP: equal student-teacher ratios, equal number of computers per child, equal percentages of certified teachers, school buildings in comparable states of repair. Bush's budget does little to address child or family poverty, despite overwhelming evidence of the negative influence of poverty on educational achievement.

The National Education Association has criticized Bush for completely eliminating $1.2 billion in funds for school repairs and renovation. They've also protested a proposal to eliminate a class-size reduction initiative--which under Bush's plan would be turned into block grants in a flexible fund to improve teacher quality and reduce class size. The Children's Defense Fund has taken to printing a copyright mark after the key phrase in its mission statement--"leave no child behind"--ever since Bush copped it for the title of his own plan.

More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, U.S. schools are still separate and unequal. But the solution is no longer integration--which banked on linking the destinies of poor and minority children to those of better-served white students--or the mediation of poverty. Now it's high-stakes testing, chump change tossed at one of the nation's most enduring challenges, and, of course, open markets.


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