After a lot of war talk last night, the Republicans are getting back to the “compassionate conservatism” theme — a clever and probably necessary strategy for Bush two months from Election Day when more Americans think his opponent understands people like them. Helping to make Bush’s case: Education Secretary Rod Paige. (You may remember Paige’s outrageous comments earlier this year likening the nation’s largest teachers union to a “terrorist organization.”)
No matter what anyone may be hearing around town about the No Child Left Behind Act, Paige told the convention, the law is working. “Now schools are being held accountable for progress,” he said. “All across America test scores are rising, students are learning, the achievement gap is closing, teachers and principals are beaming with pride!”
And he put a school-house twist on the Kerry flip-flop nonsense. “Our opponents voted for No Child Left Behind. They praised it then. Now they attack it,” Paige said. “They say No Child Left Behind should be watered down, schools can’t handle change, some children just can’t learn. We say, do not underestimate our public schools, do not underestimate our teachers and never underestimate our children!”
Paige is right about one thing — NCLB once had wide bipartisan support. It was Bush’s first legislative proposal, and many Democrats, including John Kerry, voted for it. But now, its critics are legion — and they extend well beyond the Democratic party to teachers, civic groups, school administrators and state officials. And with good reason: The law punishes schools without giving them a way to fix the causes of low achievement among poor and minority kids, it’s too obsessed with standardized tests, and it’s woefully underfunded. There’s even opposition on the right, from conservatives who think it violates states’ rights.
But really, the worst of it is that schools just can’t satisfy the law’s demands with the restrictions they’re facing. It’s not because they’re “underestimating” themselves, either. Bush refuses to fully fund No Child Left Behind — by billions. The Center for Education Policy, a nonpartisan group, says in this report on the law: “Over half of the nation’s school districts will receive fewer Title I dollars this coming school year than they did last year, even though the No Child Left Behind Act is demanding more of all school districts.” Title I is federal money set aside for disadvantaged students.
And when Democrats recently tried to repeal some of Bush’s tax cuts for millionaires to fund government programs, it was voted down overwhelmingly by Republicans. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay had this to say: “Hiking taxes to pay for big government programs is as dead as disco.” Even when it comes to schools? Not exactly compassionate when you think about it. But that’s why DeLay isn’t on the podium tonight.
Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com. More Geraldine Sealey.
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