Leave no rich child behind

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Posted by Alli ( on January 23, 2002 at 15:28:47:

Jesse Jackson
Tribune Media Services

Leave no rich child behind
Bush raises the rim without leveling the court floor

Years ago, basketball officials raised the rim in basketball to 10 feet. This didn't hurt the short players because, whatever the height of the basket, the floor was even. This week, President Bush has been celebrating his new education bill -- The Leave No Child Behind Act, a title that would make George Orwell's Big Brother proud. The bill raises the rim for all students by nationally mandating testing every year from grades three through eight. But in this case, the little people -- particularly the poor of all races -- will be terribly disadvantaged because the floor hasn't been leveled.
Some children are standing on a hill and others in a hole. The bill raises standards, but offers no resources to even the playing field. This is a recipe for failure.

Famed education writer Jonathan Kozol calls the funding of schools “savage inequality,” in his book of that name. We fund schools largely on the basis of local revenues based on property values. Parents in the inner cities and in the inner-ring suburbs often pay a higher tax rate but produce less revenue than those in the high-income suburbs, dotted with mini-mansions.

The gap, for instance, between a New Trier High School in suburban Chicago and Crane High School on the city's West Side is stark. If you go to New Trier, you are programmed for success. If you go to Crane, you get the message that the society doesn't value your chances very highly. Now the federal government is asking these kids to take the same tests. One set of kids will be praised; the other will be disgraced.

A friend of mine who just put three children into college says that the one thing you can't let a school do is teach your child that he or she is stupid. The school can teach them to read, or not. Teach them math or not. But it must never be allowed to teach the child that he or she is dumb. But with no effort being made to even the playing field, the new reforms almost insure that some kids will look like winners and others will be told they are losers.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, who joined President Bush in passing this legislation, fought hard to get increased funding for poorer schools and school districts.

His efforts added billions to the commitment, but he would be the first to say that the gaps remain shocking and the funds remain sparse. The president says nothing is closer to his heart than education. But that is not reflected in his budget, where tax cuts for the affluent come first, followed by the war, the Pentagon, missile defense, and tax cuts for corporations. Leveling the playing field in education doesn't even make his list of priorities.

But to give every child a fair shot, equal school funding is only the beginning. The cities and inner-ring suburbs must educate the children of immigrants, so they need additional resources for language, special counseling and tutoring. They have a disproportionate number of children who suffer from childhood afflictions, and need additional resources to overcome those impediments.

And that's not all. Richard Rothstein, the education columnist for the New York Times, argues that if we want to help educate kids, we have to think more broadly. The most effective use of the “next dollar,” he argues, is not higher teacher salaries (which we need), not smaller classrooms (which we need), not more technology (which we need).

The most effective use of the “next dollar” might be dentistry, because children can't learn when their teeth ache, and too many children of working and poor families can't afford dental care. The next most effective investment might be affordable housing, because when families are forced to move from place to place, children are disrupted and school work is damaged.

I support higher standards in our schools. I urge children to look beyond their surroundings, to reach as far as their dreams. I've taught them to say that “I am somebody.” I have pushed for a large national commitment to education for years.

Now we get new federal mandates over education, but no new resources. This new bill is not the answer; it may well soon be part of the problem. It raises the rims but doesn't level the floors. It asks all students to jump the same hurdle, with springs under a few and weight and shackles on others. It ignores what we know is needed to insure that every child gets a healthy start and has a fair chance.

The sad reality is that the Leave No Child Behind Act in fact does exactly that. This isn't the end of sensible education reform; it may not even be a beginning.

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