Sunday, February 05, 2006

Playing Politics With Children’s Lives

Like the Civil War, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act has set brother against brother. Not in several lifetimes would anyone have expected Connecticut’s Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Scott Esdaile, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, to be peering at each other over the political barricades.

And yet, here we are. Blumenthal brought suit against U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings because the attorney general thought the Act imposed on Connecticut mandates that were not funded by the federal government. Governor Jodi Rell nodded consent to the suit, which also was backed by teachers, municipal governments and other custodians of the status quo.

The status quo in Connecticut’s cities should be unbearable for minorities, because the state’s urban centers are encrusted with schools that by any academic measure are spectacular failures. As it turns out, it is unbearable for the NAACP, an organization that views the No Child Left Behind Act as a useful inducement to non-performing schools. And here the NAACP bumps heads with Blumenthal.

It is not that Blumenthal and Rell wish to sit idly by while generation after generation of African Americans have been written off by educators, teachers unions, their confederates in the state legislature, and two thirds of the state’s boards of education that have joined Blumenthal in his suit. Not at all. The thrust of the attorney general’s suit is highly conservative. Education is a function of state government, and if the federal government wishes to poke its nose into matters that should not concern it, common decency requires that the feds should pay for the burdens the No Child Left Behind Act imposes on the state.

The U.S. Education Secretary, whose department conservatives once sought to abolish, dared to quibble with this view of things and pointed out that the federal government is a co-contributor in the miss-education of Connecticut’s urban school children. As such, the federal government has a stake in seeing to it they are suitably educated. The No Child Left Behind Act is a pistol pointed at the heads of those who ought to be held responsible for failing public schools. It says in so many words: Shape up, or we’ll close down your non-performing schools. Taxpayer dollars should not be spent in supporting failing public schools.

Enter Blumenthal on his usual white horse, waving a suit in his clenched fist. Choruses of teachers in the background, acting like third graders faced with a difficult homework assignment, sing their usual plaint, “It’s too hard! It’s much too hard! I caaaaan’t do it!” A half century after the educational establishment had systematically destroyed a comprehensive curriculum centered on basic skills, stuffed children’s heads with powder puff subjects and diverted massive funding increases into the pockets of teachers, suddenly everyone discovered it was virtually impossible to induce urban eighth graders to read and figure and write, so that someday they might be able to mount their chargers and put to right social wrongs -- like Blumenthal.

This time, the NAACP has marshaled its forces on the side of the children. Enough is enough. We now know that schools like the Amistad Academy in New Haven -- not to mention Catholic schools -- drawing from the same pool of students that public schools release into the world uneducated, are fully capable of providing urban children with a chance in life. With a per-pupil cost nearly half that of public schools, Amistad students continually outperform the best of the state’s public schools and beat the statewide Connecticut Mastery Test average in reading, writing and math. There is no white-black achievement gap at Amistad, whose motto might well be “No excuses.”

Enough is enough.

John Brittain, one of the prime movers in the Sheff v O’Neill suit, is one of the faces that will be staring at Blumenthal across the legal divide. Blumenthal’s suit should be dismissed without merit for two reasons, Brittain said: It is a waste of time and resources; and Blumenthal’s claim that the sanctions embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act represent an unfunded mandate is amusingly irrelevant. “The 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Brittain points out, “was an unfunded mandate.” Legislative and judicial remedies, Blumenthal should understand – if only from his own experience – can be expensive. But expense in the pursuit of justice is no vice.

As usual, the political struggle that fuels the dispute will be played out in court. It should be played out in the legislature. And if the Republican Party were worth a lick of salt, it would support the No Child Left Behind Act, join forces with the NAACP and Brittain, and get the job done.

Do it for the kids.
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