By Bill Boyarsky
One of the worst casualties of the Iraq war and the Wall Street failures is the U.S. public school system, which is central to the nation’s economic, intellectual and social health. With financial resources being consumed, education cuts are on the way.
We’ll be paying for this for many years. Poorly educated young people will be unable to get good jobs. We’ll lose our intellectual capital. For that, we can thank Wall Street and its anti-regulation political friends. Thank you, John McCain and President George W. Bush. And thank you both for the war.
Sen. Barack Obama has some pretty good ideas about education, but he might as well forget them. His education proposals would cost at least $18 billion in federal funds. When Jim Lehrer, moderator of last week’s presidential campaign debate, asked him what would happen to all his plans in the wake of the Wall Street bailout, he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, answer.
The importance of the question was clear last week when I visited with several high school teachers at Los Angeles High School.
The school is located between the poor neighborhoods east of the city’s downtown and the more affluent neighborhoods toward the west. Its student body of about 3,000 draws from them all. Some come from comfortable homes with professional mothers and fathers. Others live in crowded one-bedroom apartments with two underpaid working-immigrant parents who may or may not speak English.
I walked through the halls with my friend John Ogden, a veteran Los Angeles High School teacher who had set up my meeting with the teachers. As he greeted a colleague and then a student, I felt that I had entered a community—a complicated one, I knew, but still a community united in a common purpose: education.
Although the Bush administration and Congress took a hands-off attitude toward Wall Street—until the collapse—Washington enthusiastically reached into the classrooms of every public school in the country with the No Child Left Behind Act. This legislation, passed early in the Bush administration with bipartisan support, requires the states to assess students before they receive high school diplomas. Without such testing—in California it is called the California High School Exit Examination—schools could lose federal funding, which amounted to $24.4 billion last year under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The testing is the most controversial feature of No Child Left Behind. The controversy reached into the Los Angeles High School faculty.
Several of the teachers were gathered in a classroom for a faculty meeting on teaching projects. After they finished, I got up and explained that I wanted to talk to them about education for a piece for Truthdig. They were polite but didn’t say much until I raised a question that has always puzzled me in reporting on L.A. public schools: What kind of test scores can be expected from a Hispanic kid with working parents who is trying to do homework in a noisy and overcrowded apartment?
The discussion turned lively. One veteran teacher talked of the obstacles faced by his poor students, who often have to maneuver through gang territory on their way to school.
“Testing has the reek of punishment about it,” he said. “There is something unfair about it. … Is it fair to apply the same standards to parents with little education and who are unable to help their children? … Is it fair to compare that with a Beverly Hills High School student whose parents can offer help? It isn’t fair in my view to apply the same standards.”
A younger teacher disagreed. He said that the tests were good. They required teachers and students to meet standards that will be required of young men and women when they move on from high school. “We have to step up to meet the expectations that the kids in Beverly Hills have,” rather than “give excuses for not knowing what they are supposed to know,” he said. Students should know “you have to move up your game when you go to a university.”
We talked for about an hour. Our discussion covered other controversial areas, such as merit pay for teachers.
I thought they were a dedicated bunch. No matter how they felt about standardized testing, the school’s California High School Exit Examination score was substantially up in the 2007-2008 school year.
But they have been let down by Washington. It imposed the standards but now doesn’t have the money to help school districts finance the classes and extra other programs that will permit the Los Angeles High School children of poor immigrants to compete with their contemporaries in Beverly Hills High School just a few miles away.
They and other public students across the country are real, but unnoticed, victims of the financial crisis. They are another reason why the Wall Street failures and the war are two of the great calamities of our age.
“No Child Left Behind” is written above each of these “little red schoolhouse” entrances at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education building in Washington, D.C.
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