No Slogan Left Behind

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush read to students at Pearl Harbor Elementary School in Honolulu, Hawaii Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003. AP

This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.


After making war not peace in 2003, our president is taking advantage of the New Year and Democratic fratricide to dress up in his compassionate conservative costume again. First it was kindler, gentler immigration reforms, then an anniversary party for his favorite bill-that-became-a-law, the No Child Left Behind education program.

The NCLB (I can't use the whole, silly slogan again, I'm sorry) celebration is an especially ironic affair, and not just for the president. Bush is trying to collect the political capital from NCLB just as many states and school systems are rebelling because they don't have the real capital (or the desire) to comply with the burdensome law. And the Democratic candidates who were in Congress when NCLB was passed are busy attacking this program they all voted for.

The very details of the president's anniversary day schedule tell me most of what I need to know, albeit in a symbolic way. Bush traveled to Westview Elementary School in Knoxville, Tennessee for the obligatory read-to-kids photo-op and speech. Then he went to a campaign fundraiser. And then he got on Air Force One and flew to Palm Beach for - you guessed it - another fundraiser. The not so subtle point being, NCLB, like the posture of compassionate conservatism, has everything to do with winning elections.

That fixing schools would ever be the signature achievement of a 21st century Republican president was a dubious proposition from the onset. Why's that? It's pretty simple: the federal government provides only about seven percent of the budgets for America's schools. How much is tinkering with that seven percent going to help? What chance is there that seven would turn into fourteen? None.

And that's what Republicans believe in, right? It's called federalism. Parents and communities know best how to educate their kids, or at least they should have the right to do it themselves. Bureaucrats in Washington can only hinder, not help. Thus runs the credo that led so many foot soldiers of the Reagan-Gingrich era to attempt to abolish the Department of Education.

Well, NCLB turned that philosophy of federalism on its head, and put a dunce cap on it.

The basic idea of the legislation wasn't to give school and towns more resources, but to force them to comply with detailed standards - standards set by the feds - or face a slew of penalties and consequences. Accountability was to come from those faceless bureaucrats in Washington, not parents.

It is certainly the most intrusive federal foray ever into public schools. And for Republicans, it was philosophically incoherent (that's why more Democrats voted for NCLB than Republicans).

It is, however, a philosophic incoherence schools from Key West to Nome must heed.

Their third-graders through eighth-graders, at least 95 per cent of them, must take federally mandated tests each year. And if all the sub-groups in the school - boys, girls, brown, white and green - don't show annual improvement, a chain of requirements launches, beginning with forced permission for kids to go to other schools in the district and ending with mandated dumping of school management.

It gets worse. These mandated changes cost money but the law doesn't give the schools more money. Systems would have to pay to transport those kids who chose to go to "higher performing" schools. The failing schools have to pay for more teacher training and tutoring for low-income kids. Where's that money supposed to come from? Republican fundraisers?

When NCLB passed, schools were told they would get some more federal dollars to help comply. But the program has not been close to fully funded, as the president essentially admitted on anniversary day when he said he fund boost his 2005 budget request by about $2.1 billion, which critics will say isn't nearly enough.

NCLB has become a dreaded "unfunded mandate" as they call it in political science seminars.

And increasingly, schools and states are looking for ways to tell the feds to take their unfunded mandates and stick them up their appropriations committees. A few schools and school districts in Vermont and Connecticut have already told the federal government to keep its money, they're not going to comply with NCLB. Some schools in Virginia are debating doing the same.

But these are schools in relatively prosperous spots. Under Title 1 of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, most federal education aid is directed to schools in poor areas. These are precisely the schools that cannot say "No thanks" to any federal aid; and they are the schools that will have the hardest time complying with NCLB. That's why the impoverished city of Reading, Pennsylvania, which is already on the NCLB probation list, is suing to protect itself from the clutches of that law.

And some Republican state legislators in Utah, where Republicans reign, are pushing legislation that would have the state opt out of NCLB and pass up all federal education bucks.

On the Democratic campaign trail, NCLB is a popular punching bag. But only Howard Dean opposed it, vocally, from the start. In 2002, then-Governor Dean even threatened to have Vermont opt out.

But Gephardt, Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards and Kucinich all voted for it. Now they want to reform it, to spend more money on it and to pillory Bush.

For these other Democrats, it's part of their highly unappetizing cake-and-eat-it syndrome. They want to vote for the war, and oppose it. Or they want to vote for the Bush tax cuts, and oppose them. They are all finesse, no fiber.

For President Bush, I expect that No Child Left Behind will remain an effective marketing slogan.

For schools, they're stuck with making the best of a policy born of finesse, marketing and cheapness.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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