Bush's New Federal Math Leaves Kids Far Behind

A Texas Hoax May Be the President's Waterloo

Somewhere in my youth, for reasons unremembered, an old-timer regaled me a tale of a snake-oil barker hawking athletic socks from a fold-up stand. "Socks, socks, a nickel a pair," he brayed, "a twentieth part of a dollar. The longer you wear 'em, the stronger they get. Ya put 'em in water, they never get wet. Socks, socks . . . "

George W. Bush is a little feistier than most carnival barkers ("Dead or alive," "Bring 'em on," etc.), but his promises are not much different—just catchy bait for the pigeons in the front rows.

Mostly, we've been watching the president's rhetoric spring leaks in Iraq and Afghanistan. So perhaps we haven't paid enough attention to how many holes have popped open in his domestic socks. Joblessness that was supposed to be stanched by the Bush tax cuts. Urban food kitchens overwhelmed by the demand from people who are working but underemployed and end up out of money three weeks into the month. A domestic Peace Corps program (AmeriCorps) that is praised publicly by the president as admirable volunteerism but is being starved of money by the White House and congressional Republicans.

illustration: Ryan Sanchez

But, still, you wouldn't think he would stiff children and their schooling. That's maybe the most disappointing thing this president has done here at home.

War has a way of taking the air out of national discussion, but we should try to remember that the president's catchiest slogan both during his campaign and since is "No Child Left Behind." It's a terrific sentiment—a noble end that has now been turned into a banality. He said it was his brightest accomplishment as governor of Texas. He said the Houston schools were the model. We wanted to believe him. We all know education is crucial to a healthy community and we all say we really care about it. So we were the pigeons in the front rows.

Over the past year or so, getting headlines in Texas but only modest coverage elsewhere, the "Texas Miracle" has been disrobed. It was a scam, a hoax. The governor had put the fear of Bush into the school bureaucracy. You will perform, the principals and superintendents were told. You will dramatically bring down the dropout rate and dramatically raise the reading and math scores. Bonuses were promised to those who succeeded, demotions and pay-docking to those who didn't.

Suddenly, as if in the Land of Oz, kids in low-income districts who had been dropping out of high school at rates of 30 and 40 percent and higher were apparently born again, burying their faces in their books into the wee hours. And then the truth came out. They were still dropping out at the same old percentages; they just weren't being counted as dropouts. They weren't even being listed as "whereabouts unknown"—as if they might have moved to another district and forgotten to leave a forwarding address. They had simply disappeared. They were los desaparecidos. Maybe General Pinochet had them kidnapped for interrogation and torture.

Anyway, if you want to read more about the "Texas Scandal," I recommend you get on the Web and look up a series of marvelous pieces that a fine reporter, Michael Winerip, has been doing in The New York Times. (My only quibble is that all the articles have been half buried on the education page at the back of the Metro Section, instead of starting on page one. After all, we do say we really care about kids and education.)

As a sample, here is some of what Winerip found on the scene in Houston, where he described Sharpstown High School: "[This] poor, mostly minority high school of 1,650 students had a freshman class of 1,000 that dwindled to fewer than 300 students by senior year. And yet—and this is the miracle—not one dropout to report. Nor was zero an unusual dropout rate in this school district that both President Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige have held up as the national showcase for accountability. . . . Westside High here had 2,308 students and no reported dropouts; Wheatley High 731 students, no dropouts. A dozen of the city's poorest schools reported dropout rates under 1 percent."

This was the district cited as the model for Bush's No Child Left Behind law enacted by Congress in the first months after his inauguration. Congress authorized $18 billion to launch the program nationwide. Oddly, the president has budgeted only $12 billion, lopping off one-third of the money. This is the disconnect that runs through nearly all of the president's cornerstone policies. He utters grand slogans and then slips behind his Wizard of Oz curtain and pretends that's all he has to do. Just wear a sincere tie or some military-style clothing and speak the appropriate stately catchwords while standing in front of a giant flag, and then say "God Bless America" at the close, and people will give him the second term his father was unable to achieve. "I did it for the family honor, Dad," is how this movie is scripted to end.

But in the real Wizard of Oz movie, with Judy Garland, the curtain is pulled back and there stands no wizard, just plain old Frank Morgan. Unlike Bush, Morgan is embarrassed.

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