Bush's New Federal Math Leaves Kids Far Behind

A Texas Hoax May Be the President's Waterloo

Congress, which should have done its homework on Houston before it swallowed the president's hooey, has begun complaining about his underfunding of the program. Rod Paige, Bush's education secretary, says the funding is just fine. No surprise there—he was the superintendent of the "miracle" Houston school district before Bush tapped him for the cabinet. Interestingly, the Texas educational authorities are now beginning to impose penalties on those in the Houston system who falsely reported no dropouts. Do you suppose the president will dock Paige's pay?

The president's No Child Left Behind law requires every public school system to administer rigorous annual testing of students, starting in the third grade, in such subjects as English and math. If the test scores of any segment of a school's population—such as Latinos struggling with English or disabled students in special-ed classes—do not meet the proficiency levels set by the law, the entire school is listed as "failing" and students can choose to transfer to a school in the district that is doing well. In other words, averaging the test scores of the entire student body might produce a successful result, but the scores of the struggling segment will still, under the law, brand the school as "failing." In addition to placing new financial and space demands on successful schools, the law's requirements will also lay serious new money burdens on the ones with troubles, for such things as additional teacher training and additional classes. If the White House shortchanges the program, who is going to foot the bill?

Most of the 50 states are already suffering badly from Bush's Fast Deal foreign policy and also his New Federal Math. Here's how it works. The president slashes federal taxes, thus sending the national deficit over $500 billion (a record) only three years after we were showing a healthy surplus; he says this tax relief, the biggest chunk of which goes to the wealthiest Americans, will jump-start the economy by prompting the business community to create scads of new jobs. (Instead, since his inauguration in January 2001, the nation has lost nearly 3 million jobs.) Then, soon after 9-11, he orders our armed forces to be prepared to destroy all enemies, and more recently lays out $87 billion for just next year to subdue and reconstruct only two of these countries where terrorists and others who don't like us are trying to kill us. He describes as "allies" in that same region such nations as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that do little or nothing to halt the flow of money and other assistance from sympathizers within their borders to those trying to kill us.

illustration: Ryan Sanchez

And, finally, he and his loyalists inform our 50 state governments that they will be losing substantial federal funds because "we are at war" and Washington has its hands full and every good American should appreciate this and not complain because that will only give aid and comfort to the enemy. The president mentioned the word "sacrifice" in his latest speech to the nation, but it was vague and unspecific, leaving one to wonder if it applies only to military personnel and the unwealthy.

The nation's schools are very much a part of this sorry larger picture. State budget crises have become the norm, not the exception. In Oklahoma City, lack of funds forced the closing of seven schools; 600 teachers were laid off. In Alabama, 38 of the state's school systems are said to be facing bankruptcy. Boston has closed five schools. Portland, Oregon, chopped several weeks off the school year. And so the list goes. Children are not only being left behind, they are being abandoned. How can the president tell Americans he's certain he's on the right track?

New York is one of the states in great pain—not only from Washington but from its own governor, George Pataki, who has been toadying up to the Bush coterie in pursuit of a cabinet post, largely to escape the mess he has made here. He'll take any cabinet post, please, Mr. President.

Last year, running for a third term, Pataki tried to hide the multibillion-dollar state budget debacle he had created by overspending. Pataki won the election, but then was compelled by cold facts to acknowledge a $10 billion state shortfall. However, echoing the president's mantra, he said it could be solved without raising taxes, which was of course impossible without a federal printing press. New York City took the hardest blow, a huge local property tax increase, partly because a profligate Rudy Giuliani had saddled his successor, Michael Bloomberg, with a budget gap comparable to the state's.

Bloomberg is committed viscerally to lifting the city's public school system, the nation's largest, out of its history of widespread failure. But he doesn't make foolish promises or offer slogans like No Child Left Behind. He doesn't speak in imperial tones. He doesn't even use harsh words against politicians who say or do harsh things meant to injure his mayoralty. He seems merely to be trying to do his best for the city. All of which is a welcome departure from the hollow stagecraft being beamed at us from Washington.

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