A Child Left Behind

Ecstatic hosannas were being sung in Washington as the new education bill emerged from a House-Senate negotiating committee Tuesday. You'd think Christmas had come two weeks early.

In the great Capitol Hill tradition of giving bills grandiloquent names, this one has been christened the No Child Left Behind Act. Sadly, it's yet another case of Congressional false advertising -- a lump of coal wrapped in shiny tinsel.

To show how misleading the self-serving moniker is, let's take a look at how the legislation would actually impact one of those kids it's supposed to rescue. Let's call him Johnny, a poor black first-grader at Lousy Elementary in South Central Los Angeles.

The centerpiece of the new bill is its requirement that all children in grades three through eight be tested annually in reading and math. In the name of parental empowerment, it also requires that parents be given a report charting the progress of their child's school. So Johnny's parents learn that the school has failed to adequately teach its students.

The good news is that the new bill offers parents of children attending failing schools the chance to move their kids to a better public school. The bad news is a school has to fail for two years straight before this option kicks in, so Johnny's folks will have to let him languish in a substandard school while they wait and see if the school can "turn things around."

This is like a doctor telling you that you have cancer but you can't start chemo for two years. The school may have two years to waste but Johnny doesn't.

Without any other choice, Johnny's parents cross their fingers. Who knows, maybe the school will improve. Maybe the cancer will go away. After all, the new bill requires states to have a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom. But it doesn't spell out how that admirable goal is going to be achieved. As it is, 14 percent of California's teachers are uncredentialed. And the numbers are even grimmer in neighborhoods like Johnny's, where students are five times more likely to have underqualified teachers.

Johnny and his folks grit their teeth and tough it out for another year. At the end, they are given another failing report: The school still stinks. Johnny's parents are extremely concerned. But at least now, thanks to the new act, they can leave Lousy Elementary and enroll Johnny in a better school. That is, if there's room at this better school. Which there isn't. Schools in California are bursting at the seams.

Indeed, it will cost $30 billion to build all the schools the state needs to properly house its students. Compare this to the bill's total price tag of $22 billion, and you see how ludicrous the claims being made in Washington are. Parental choice is meaningless if parents don't actually have any schools to choose from.

So, for Johnny, it's back to Lousy for yet another year. And, once again, the school fails to meet its academic goals. But all is not lost. After a student has been in a failing school for three years, the No Child Left Behind Act makes federal money available to the child's parents for "supplemental education services" such as private tutoring. The idea, I guess, is: "If our schools can't teach your kids, maybe you can find somebody who can."

Failing students in California will be given $800 a year for a private tutor. At current rates, Johnny will only be able to see his tutor less than once a week -- hardly enough to make a serious impact. But he gives it his best shot.

Another year passes. Johnny is now at the end of fifth grade, and all remedial avenues provided by the new bill have proven to be dead ends. But the bill does call for him to keep being tested and tested and tested again so that each year Johnny and his parents will be painfully reminded just how badly he's failing -- and being failed.

And that's pretty much the extent of the difference the No Child Left Behind Act will have on the lives of Johnny and the millions like him.

But at least the Washington establishment can head home for the holidays, satisfied that they've "done" education.

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