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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s going to be a hard go in New York and all over this land. One big reason is that we have a president who, more than any other chief executive in our history, seems unhooked from reality. We have to face the distressing possibility that he may not be up to the tasks confronting the nation.