The big lie: 'No child left behind'
Derrick Z. Jackson, Boston Globe, 8/2/2002
Article submitted by Kim Murphy - Thank you!
When President Bush signed the
No Child Left Behind Act in January, he said: ''There must be real
consequences. There must be a moment in which parents can say, `I've
had enough of this school.''' Bush added, ''Any school that does not
perform, any school that cannot catch up and do its job, a parent will
have these options - a better public school, a tutor, or a charter
school. We do not want children trapped in schools that will not
change and will not teach.''
Bush's declaration was easy to make back when there
were no consequences to hand down. A half-year later, the parents of
failing schools and their children remain as trapped as ever.
In Chicago, where 179 elementary schools with
125,000 students have been classified as failing, school officials
announced this week that students in only 50 of those schools will be
allowed to seek transfers to a better-performing school. That means
that only 29,000 students of the 125,000 in failing schools will be
eligible to seek transfers.
More insidious is that the CEO of Chicago's public
schools, Arne Duncan, announced that students will not be able to
select a school more than 3 miles from home. That means that students
on the beleaguered south and west sides of Chicago will have no chance
at enrolling in better-performing schools to the north, northwest, and
With all the restrictions Duncan has put in place,
there will be only 2,900 transfer slots. Chicago will keep between 97
and 98 percent of its 125,000 students in their traps in failing
schools. Duncan said he will spend $35 million of federal money on the
failing schools. But the odious whiff of enforced segregation in his
plan makes you wonder if the dreamy rhetoric of ''neighborhood
schools'' is just another South African pass law.
''We fully support the spirit of the law, but there
is a practical reality to deal with,'' Duncan said. ''If every student
in every school exercised choice, there would be a great deal of chaos
in the system. We simply don't have enough space for the students.''
The spirit is willing, but the enrollment is weak.
Some 30,000 children in Baltimore's failing schools have a grand total
of 194 slots in better-performing schools in which to transfer. Some
40,000 students in Memphis's failing schools have been told that they
must duke it out for 1,500 transfer slots. In South Carolina, some
districts, claiming they are too small, are using loopholes in Bush's
act to refusing transfers altogether.
The way this is going, No Child Left Behind should
be recast as No Child Ever Seen Again. In Memphis, one parent, Tanya
White, said, ''With all the schools vying for the same spots, I feel
as if I'm wasting my time.'' In Cincinnati, where 17,000 students
languish in failing schools, a School Department spokesperson, Jan
Leslie, said: ''I don't know that we will have a lot of vacancies,
perhaps only in the hundreds. We will not overcrowd or drive up
pupil-teacher ratios at schools that are successful.''
Some observers of public schools are not at all
worried about the lack of transfer seats for students because in many
locales, low-income parents historically do not come out in droves to
transfer their children. But what seems to be a lack of interest in
education may actually be like the reaction of someone who is
constantly told that a concert or sports event is sold out. At some
point, all but the most desperate - those who are willing to pay a
scalper - give up the hunt for seats.
When Bush signed No Child Left Behind, he and his
education team had to know how vast a gulf would emerge between the
number of students at failing schools and transfer slots. The cynicism
is similar to that regarding vouchers. Bush hailed the Supreme Court
decision upholding vouchers, knowing all the while that most wealthy
suburbs would not take them and their value would be worthless for
elite private schools. Bush has waged no campaign to increase the
value of vouchers.
As the weeks pass, many more school systems will
announce that tens of thousands of children are sinking in failing
schools with even fewer lifeboats than the Titanic. Without any
serious attempt to make the consequences real, No Child Left Behind is
a trap of its own. When parents like Tanya White are already saying
they feel as if they are wasting their time, education remains a game
that is sold out for the season.
Derrick Z. Jackson's
e-mail address is