Acton Commentary

Government School Monopolies Leave Children Behind


America’s failing government schools, the educational establishment, and the teachers’ unions are running scared, and they should be. On Tuesday, November 26, the federal Department of Education issued final rules for the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. These rules give school districts 12 years to bring all students up to proficiency levels in reading, math, and science. In addition, students must show “adequate yearly progress” on national standardized tests. If they do not, schools can be designated as “failing”.

For the first time in decades, government schools will be forced to be accountable to the parents of the children they serve. Government schools, long the beneficiaries of one of the last remaining state-sanctioned monopolies, will have to face competition, and this is a good thing. Businesses and private schools alike both know that real competition provides the onus necessary for institutions and organizations to improve and streamline operations. Those organizations that cannot or will not improve are faced with extinction. Many government schools know this as well, and they operate on that principle, producing student success after student success. Beyond the mere competitive model, they understand the moral duty they have to educate the young and they do so extremely well. Other government schools, protected from real competition and shielded from their moral obligations to students by the teachers’ unions and other members of the educational establishment have been content to graduate students who cannot read, cannot write, and consequently cannot succeed in American society. It is schools such as these that have much to fear from the new law.

Those government schools failing to make “adequate yearly progress” are faced with serious consequences. If a school fails for two years in a row, its students must be offered public school choice. In other words, students must be allowed to transfer to another area school that is not failing, be it a public, charter, or private school. Schools that fail three years in a row must offer low-income students supplemental educational services, such as private tutoring; fail four years in a row and schools must take a “corrective action”, that is, replacing staff, implementing a new curriculum, and/or expanding the school day. If a school fails to make “adequate yearly progress” for five years in a row, the school must be restructured, consisting of reopening as a charter school, replacing all or most of the staff, state takeover of the school, or some other major restructuring of the school’s organization. These consequences are genuine concerns for failing government schools. The fact that such severe consequences are necessary at all is a cause for alarm, however, for all who are concerned about the education of our nation’s children.

The solution to failing government schools proposed by the teachers unions and their generally left-leaning coalition partners is always more money. Since 1965, however, the federal government has spent more than $321 billion to help educate disadvantaged children. Yet, today, only 40% of white fourth graders read at the age-appropriate grade level, while only10% of African American, and 18% of American Indian and Hispanic fourth graders, could read at the age-appropriate grade level. Clearly, the answer cannot simply be more money. Rather, it seems a real change in the American education system is warranted.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has been roundly criticized, and some the criticisms are justified. The NCLB Act is one of the largest intrusions of federal power into state affairs in recent history. Additionally, creating yet another standardized test does not necessarily mean that that this new test will any more effective in measuring real student achievement. Indeed, with so much at stake, there is a real possibility that some principals and teachers will choose to cheat on these tests in order to avoid the stiff penalties that would result in continued poor performance. Such a situation is not unheard of in the contemporary educational establishment. There is always a danger of such immoral and unethical behavior in standardized testing, but it could be even more pronounced given the penalities that could be imposed.

On the other hand, the educational establishment fears that NCLB will set up a “system where the states feel hard pressed not to fail” according to Kristin Tosh Cowan, a lawyer representing dozens of state education departments and large school districts. Additionally, the National Education Association and other government school defenders are concerned that NCLB will result in too many schools classified as failing, resulting in students crowding into schools that do make “adequate yearly progress”.

The real concern in all of this debate, however, is overlooked. Even one school whose students are not making progress in reading and are not reading to grade level, is one school too many. There is too much at stake for government schools to fail in the duties to educate students. In American society, reading is a fundamental skill necessary for advancement. Individuals who cannot read have difficulty carrying out the most basic tasks, such as filling out a check, reading a prescription, passing a driver’s test, reading a recipe, or using the Internet. More to the point, the US Department of Education estimates that 60% of the unemployed lack basic skills necessary to be trained for high tech and other higher paying, jobs. Illiteracy and a lack of reading competency in America leave individuals forever at a disadvantage in our increasingly technologically reliant world. The failure of government schools to adequately teach reading and other basic skills is a scandal of the highest order.

In the end, substantial change must occur in the educational system. A parent’s freedom to choose which school will teach their children must be vindicated. Furthermore, this choice must be extended to all families, regardless of wealth, race, or location. Parents of poor inner city students must be given the same educational choices as parents of wealthy suburban children. Without this choice and this freedom, students, particularly students from poor and minority families, will be left stranded in schools that consistently and continually fail them.

Justice demands that all people be given sufficient opportunities to succeed. In the modern world, education is the route by which people achieve the foundations for success. The No Child Left Behind Act, despite its flaws, offers new and substantive opportunities so that assistance can be provided to those who need it most. When the educational marketplace is open to all and when the government school monopoly is finally broken, all schools—government and private alike, will benefit. Only then, truly, will no child be left behind.