Something odd has happened to what had once seemed a consensus behind the much-vaunted Bush administration proposal for school reform called "No Child Left Behind." When it was first proposed and enacted two years ago, the measure -- which ties federal funding to standardized measures of student progress in all public schools everywhere -- was trumpeted by Republicans as proof of the new president's "compassionate conservatism," while many Democrats saw it as a silver lining in their suddenly cloudy political picture.
Now, however, the law is coming in for a barrage of criticism from a variety of directions. Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean has made opposition to it a staple of his public speeches, referring to it as "No School Board Left Standing" and "No Behind Left" and condemning it as a federal intrusion into the rights of localities. That latter criticism has been echoed by a number of officials involved in public education, including many in both the Memphis and Shelby County school systems. Strikingly, Lora Jobe, a field representative of Republican U.S. senator Lamar Alexander, felt obliged last week, in her role as Memphis school board member, to criticize the law's standardized measures as misleading -- though her proposals for clean sweeps of personnel at under-performing schools reflected some of the underlying logic of the administration plan.
But Jobe's plan would work within the confines of public education as the term is ordinarily understood and reflects a similar reshuffling plan by the district if the schools do not come off the list by 2004. By contrast, "No Child Left Behind" would react to the phenomenon of consistently failing schools by offering parents such alternative havens for their children as the newly developing charter schools or presumably, if the administration's various school-voucher proposals ever come to pass, private schools. The latter prospect has various public-school lobbies up in arms, especially since limited funding has been provided to enable school districts to upgrade to meet the strict standards of "No Child Left Behind."
There's another side to the controversy, however, and it was articulated last week by Governor Phil Bredesen, who announced a new "Office of Innovation, Improvement, and Accountability" to help achieve the new federal standards. In meetings in Memphis with educators and other public officials, Bredesen made it clear that he did not disapprove of the concept of strict measures, and he seemed unmoved by arguments against "teaching to the test." In keeping with the decisive actions he took this year in pruning the state's budget, the governor said he would insist on immediate results -- especially in light of fresh TCAP scores showing half of all state schools and 105 Memphis schools to be "target" schools under the law.
Jobe made a point of the apparent anomaly that White Station High School, which has a reputation for academic excellence and annually graduates a high number of National Merit Scholars, is on the list. Supporters of "No Child Left Behind" would respond that that's just the point -- that even better-than-average schools are "leaving behind" certain low-end students, and "No Child Left Behind" is designed to prevent this.
One thing is clear: Both Bredesen and President Bush himself, who made a trip to Nashville this week on behalf of "No Child Left Behind," are turning up the heat. Public education faces a test stiffer than any it has faced before, and it will plainly have to cram to pass.