Monday, January 12, 2015

All the Children Left Behind

As millions of students returned to school this week after Christmas break – pardon, “winter holiday” – 535 children legislators convened in Washington to determine, among other things, whether they will allow to continue unchecked the steep deterioration of America’s educational system.

No Child Left Behind, the behemoth federal legislation that’s left not simply one child but an entire generation behind, may be approaching its day of reckoning. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairs of their respective chambers' education committees, are preparing an overhaul of the legislation that would divest the federal government of much of its control over education – control our Constitution never authorized Washington to have in the first place.

Signed into law in 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the successor to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first passed as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Easily the most far-reaching federal legislation affecting education, ESEA, in its initial form, was 32 pages long, included five titles and provided about $1 billion in federal education funding. Thanks to the growth of federal mandates, programs and general bureaucracy, in fiscal year 2014, funding for NCLB surpassed $25 billion. This, of course, is only a fraction of the more than $130 billion the federal government spends on elementary, secondary and higher education.

The late Ted Kennedy, NCLB’s initial sponsor, once complained, “The tragedy is that these long overdue reforms are finally in place, but the funds are not.” Wrong. Even as education funding skyrocketed over the years, so-called reforms failed to improve education for America’s children. Naturally, the Left’s response is always more money, more regulation and more federal control. Considering the smashing success of Common Core in its nascent years, however, more people are beginning to question whether little Susie really should be learning math according to Washington bureaucrats.

Not surprisingly, the prospect of disentangling federal tentacles from education is an ambitious one. Still, several proposals on the table are not only viable but also quite likely to yield real improvement in the quality of education available to children.

For starters, federal education funding has become so tied to federal mandates that local – and parental – control over education has all but disappeared. To remedy this, the Heritage Foundation notes, “[P]olicymakers should enable states to completely opt out of the programs that fall under No Child Left Behind.” Instead states should be able to “consolidate their federal education funds and use them for any lawful education purpose they deem beneficial.” Such an opt-out option would return a significant portion of educational control to states and local school districts, a fierce contrast to unelected Beltway bureaucrats playing educational puppet masters.

It’s called federalism. The nation should try it.

Similarly, reform should address bureaucratic mandates that hide behind the face of supposed accountability – for example, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements. Like many federal programs, AYP requirements sound good on the surface, but in actuality their effects are detrimental. As the Washington Examiner notes, “The longer a school fails to make adequate yearly progress, the more dramatic its required restructuring. Schools can even be taken over by the state or face mass replacements of school staff.” (As if this is the sure way to scholastic excellence.) Certainly, measuring student progress can be beneficial, but the federal government’s dictating such measurements and issuing penalties for failing to make the grade has clearly failed.

Additionally, as proponents of true education reform have long said, any legislation truly aiming to provide students the opportunity for the best education possible will allow families to choose public, private, parochial or charter schools. So, to the horror of teachers unions everywhere, a meaningful overhaul of federal education legislation must allow for funding portability, in which dollars follow the child instead of being used to hold children hostage in failing schools.

Of course, for those who (rightly) argue that the federal government has no constitutionally authorized role in education at all, a more appealing option would be for states not simply to opt-out of federal programs and “consolidate” federal education funds but for them not to send these funds to Washington in the first place.

It’s a battle whose outcome is far from determined, as powerful teachers unions have a reckless president and his pen on their side. But if ever Congress has a chance to do something that not only helps restore a bit of our constitutional order but also supports true educational opportunity for America’s youth, it’s now.


Mississippi: Common Core opponents make statement at Capitol

Gov. Phil Bryant stood in solidarity Tuesday with more than 100 Common Core opponents from across the state who spent the first day of the 2015 legislative session rallying lawmakers to repeal the controversial academic standards.

Speaking from the steps of the Capitol, Bryant told the crowd it's the state — not the federal government — that dictates educational goals and assessments for its schoolchildren. He said Mississippi should repeal Common Core and implement its own standards.

"We're determined that after nearly 100 years of failure, our public school system will succeed," Bryant said.

To do that, he said, won't take more money but more people demanding better education.

Mississippi adopted Common Core State Standards in 2010, along with 45 other states. The standards set the educational goals all public school students must attain but doesn't determine the curriculum by which those standards are taught. Local school districts do that.

The state Department of Education said on its website that it adopted the standards "because they provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn so that teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them."

But state Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, disagreed and cited the state Board of Education's own minutes showing it adopted the standards "based on finding of imminent peril to public welfare in the loss of substantial federal funds from the Race to the Top Grant … ."

Watson, among at least 11 lawmakers who publicly oppose Common Core, spoke at the rally.

"The fight is here. The fight is now," he told the crowd. "Let's not stop until we completely rid Mississippi of PARCC and the Common Core State Standards."

PARCC stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of states developing the tests that will measure Common Core-based student learning.

Watson and state Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, want to replace Common Core with standards from other states that an independent study deemed superior to Common Core. Among them are the math standards from California and language arts standards from Massachusetts.

They said the standards are public domain and free for the taking.

Among the many concerns voiced by parents and grandparents in the crowd is that Common Core will treat schoolchildren not as individuals, but as products to be manipulated and monetized. They worry it's a slippery slope that starts with education and ends with Soviet Union-era socialization.

"It's all about money," said Barbara Macko of Brandon, who attended the rally with her husband, Todd. The couple don't have children but have nieces and nephews in public schools.

But many Mississippians do support the standards, which schools have slowly been implementing for the past few years. Educators, in particular, say students have risen to the new expectations and that they'll eventually produce a more educated population.

The Mississippi Association of Educators also supports Common Core, saying it has only two problems: The state hasn't fully funded its implementation and lawmakers see students only as test scores, not children.

"The solution," MAE said in a news release, "is to return the art of teaching to the professionals: educators."

Rita Buse of Tupelo said she also wants teachers to have more flexibility but said Common Core won't provide it. She fears it will further restrict them.

"What's wrong with the Three R's — reading, writing and arithmetic?" Buse said. "A lot has been accomplished with just your basic reading and math skills. Give the teachers back their authority and put more money into the classroom instead of administrative offices."

Buse also said Common Core is needlessly frustrating for students and cited the problems her otherwise academically advanced grandson has experienced.

Bea Harrison of Jackson County said her grandson, who is 11, also struggles with school under Common Core.

"He was a straight-A student, but he came home with a C in math and said, 'Nana, I just don't understand,'" Harrison recalled. "He was also an avid reader, but they discouraged him to read what he wants, and now he doesn't like to read much anymore."

Mississippi's top educational experts, including State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright, have long predicted a temporary drop in grades as students acclimate to the new standards. But they said students ultimately will improve and grades will rise.

It could take a year or two for that to happen, Wright has said.

But that's a year or two longer than Common Core opponents want to wait.


Obama Wants to Make Community College Free, Because Why the Heck Not?

President Obama teased the nation Thursday night with promises of a glorious "free community college for all" plan. And really, who can be against free stuff?

Obama made the announcement while aboard Air Force One en route from Detroit to Phoenix. He offered few details but did say that the first two years of community college should be free for people putting in the effort to learn those skills:

"Put simply, what I'd like to do is see the first two years of community college free for everybody who's willing to work for it. That's right, free for everybody who is willing to work for it."

Of course, "free" really means "paid for by someone else." I don't think the president is offering to reach into his own pockets to pay everybody's tuition fees, so taxpayers can probably expect the cold hands of government to reach into theirs instead.

On the other hand... free! It's a fun word to say, that's for sure.

Obama will offer a full explanation of his proposal during his forthcoming State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 20. Citizens can expect to hear about lots of other "free" things they will be required fund.


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