It didn't take long for the president's education plan -- a signature theme of his candidacy and the first legislative proposal he sent to Congress -- to go from "No Child Left Behind" to "No Lobbyist Left Behind." It has strayed so far from his earlier calls for accountability, choice, flexibility and opportunity that he should return it with a request that lawmakers take one more shot and -- this time -- do the right thing.
So far, the teachers' unions and other defenders of the status quo are winning out yet again. Never mind that their methods have been tried, and have failed, for 35 years. Never mind the American people clearly want more from their education system. Honest reform is taking a beating.
Time grows short for those who work and attempt to learn in America's classrooms. Every day, they fall further behind. Achievement levels have remained stagnant or worse over the last 35 years. International tests show American students trailing badly in math and science. Worse, the longer our children stay in school, the further behind they fall in comparison to their peers in other nations.
Standardized achievement tests show that more than two out of every three eighth-graders can't read well, and 60 percent of fourth-graders on the federal free or reduced-price lunch program are functionally illiterate.
Programs for underprivileged children hardly lack funds. The federal government has spent more than $80 billion in just the last 10 years to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers. Instead, the gap has widened, in part because these funds have gone to perpetuate programs whose only legacy is failure. Efforts to narrow the gap suffer not from lack of money but lack of accountability.
President Bush sought to change this. His proposal called on schools to measure student progress every year and give parents the opportunity to move their children into better learning environments if necessary. Schools would be given flexibility to improve their methods. Those that failed would get help, and the students in those schools would be freed to move to schools that do succeed.
Yet both the House and the Senate have managed to replace measures that would compel more achievement with measures that simply compel more spending. By 2007, the Senate would have taxpayers pay an absurd $78 billion annually, a full $60 billion more than they do today.
Gone from both the House and Senate versions are school-choice provisions that would make school bureaucracies responsive to parents and children. In their place comes a measure that allows "intra-district choice," meaning urban parents can choose which failing school to send their children.
Gone is much of the consolidation, flexibility and emphasis on clear, quantifiable measures of academic progress. Remnants of these goals remain in the House version, but they have been weakened beyond the point where supporters of reform can claim victory with a straight face.
Some say this is the best we can do. Tell that to the students in inner-city schools who can't read at a basic level. Tell that to employers who will be looking for workers when those students get out of school. Already, car manufacturers say they turn away more than a third of the applicants for assembly-line jobs because they lack simple reading and writing skills.
Today's system doesn't serve today's children. Without comprehensive reforms, tomorrow's system could do even worse. Oh, there's a testing component in the congressional legislation. But if the test results don't force failing districts to improve or give parents an option to move their children to better schools -- public, private or parochial -- why bother?
Congress should stay after school and redraft the bills to better mirror the president's original plan by including significant school choice, flexibility and consolidation.
It's not more money the system needs. It's more accountability. How expensive does this lesson have to get before we learn it?
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