[This article appeared in The Boston Globe op-ed section, p.A27, on Wednesday, March 7, 2001.]
No Child Left Behind? Check The Math
March 7, 2001 -- President Bush has an admirable rallying cry. Unfortunately, he is not committed to following through on his rhetoric. I graduated from an urban public school that the president might label as failing, but I did learn simple math and reading for content.
Here's the simple math. The projected budget surplus equals $5.6 trillion (that's 11 zeros after the 5.6) over the next 10 years. If you believe (as the president and I do) that Social Security taxes should fund nothing but Social Security, you must deduct $2.5 trillion from this amount. Then deduct another $900 billion for trust funds in other lock boxes: Medicare, highway, military retirement. The surplus quickly shrinks to $2.2 trillion.
If the president's $1.6 trillion tax cut (most of which would go to the wealthiest 2 percent) passes, our surplus is down to $600 billion. But that $1.6 trillion would have been used to pay down the national debt. Without those funds, we will be required to pay an additional $400 billion in interest payments. Now the surplus is down to $200 billion.
But not for long. In order for the wealthiest taxpayers to enjoy their tax breaks, the president must amend something called the alternative minimum tax. That eliminates the final $200 billion, leaving us without a surplus. Let's double check the math. Big surplus minus Social Security lock box, minus tax cut, minus interest on debt - yup, it seems right. Zero surplus! That's one zero with nothing else around it. No surplus for medical research, military pay increases, prescription drugs, or education.
Now let's tackle the reading.
The president promises substance and accountability. He proposes to measure a school's success through annual testing of all students, Grades 3 through 8, in math and reading. But what will his high-stakes tests really accomplish?
Such tests force schools to drill students in test-taking strategies and emphasize rote memorization. Less time is available to teach children to read, write, and calculate. Less time is available to teach them to think critically, to ask questions and seek answers. Is this the education we really want?
Reading further, you learn that the president would permit any student from a school that tests poorly to take $1,500 of Title I funding out of the failing school and transfer it to another school. Imagine a typical K-8 school with 50 students in each grade, 25 in a class. If that school loses two students from each class, it loses $54,000 with no way to cut costs to meet that loss. If a school were to cut one teacher, one grade would be left with a class of 46. That cannot be the president's goal. This would accelerate the downward spiral and leave those who remain significantly worse off: 36 subsidized, 414 harmed.
Also, no one could blame parents whose children already attend private schools if they enrolled them in a failing public school once each year just to collect the $1,500. The president has not calculated how much this one simple act would cost.
What about the private schools that would receive Title I funds? Must they offer classes for special needs children? Can they demand religious conversion? Who will review their curriculum? We already know they won't be held accountable - the president's plan exempts private schools from his high-stakes testing.
And what about justice? Even if we exclude schools that discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or gender, no private school accepts every applicant, and all can expel at will. So who remains in public schools? Children with disabilities, children with developmental problems, children from families where homework is not checked. The neediest and most troubled children - those who most need our help and cost the most to educate - will not disappear. Maybe President Bush should call his proposal "Leave some children behind."
With a zero surplus, what programs will the president cut to fund his proposal? Will it be worth the trade-off? You decide. Remember, it's all just reading for content and simple math.