Guest Column: Refine no child left behind

Lynne K. Varner

Do you know how to tell Election Day is drawing near? Conservatives step up their lament about the federal role in public education. Tea partyers tote miniature copies of the U.S. Constitution and ask — rhetorically if you haven’t guessed — where the document references education.

Nowhere is the correct answer. Syndicated columnist George Will spent a recent column arguing unconvincingly that President Obama’s proposed waivers on requirements in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act deepen “a federal takeover of education.” To paraphrase another beloved conservative: There they go again.

George, the president isn’t expanding the federal grip on public schools. He’s loosening it by injecting flexibility into an education law crafted narrowly and too strictly by President George W. Bush, a Republican. Federal oversight of public education wasn’t conjured up by tax-and-spend Democrats trying to trample states’ rights.

Will’s column makes this point with a trip down history lane. Turns out we have Sen. Robert Taft to thank for the federalist reach in education. In the 79th Congress (1945-47), the Ohio Republican worked with the teachers union (gasp!) to develop an $8 billion education-spending plan over 25 years. Taft’s effort was unsuccessful, but add him to my wall of heroes.

Conservatives should be careful about criticizing public education when most of their constituency relies on it to educate their children or make up their workforce. Republicans need to energize their suburban bases in national and state races. Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna has made investing in education — to the tune of billions more in K-12 and higher education — a cornerstone of his Washington gubernatorial bid.

“My really strong opinion is that one of the key issues Republicans need to emphasize to get well-educated, suburban, secular voters is education,” said Chris Vance, a former Republican lawmaker turned political strategist. “If you stand up and say I want to get rid of the Department of Education, all voters hear is ‘You don’t love my kids.’”

Allowing states to apply for waivers from some federal requirements places Obama closer to conservatives. The plan is for states that agree to reforms — including plans to overhaul the worst schools and tough new teacher evaluations — to be exempt from some of the law’s most onerous requirements.

For example, states could evaluate schools on more things than just reading and math scores. Gone would be the law’s demand that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Good. Let’s ensure that 100 percent of students are smarter Friday than they were on Monday. Intellectual growth is the new goal.

No Child Left Behind had some benefits. It spurred Washington to make some big moves, including shifting from being one of the few states that prohibited state intervention in local districts to allowing it to help struggling schools. We smartly lengthened our teacher-tenure system and created new pathways to becoming a teacher. Obama’s proposed waivers help reform-minded states like ours push toward breakthrough. Our new teacher-evaluation system ought to win us federal points.

Washington state is motivated because it has a plethora of high-tech and bio-tech industry jobs it cannot fill. We’re not just trying to produce skilled workers, but also the next startup. More than 60 years after the call for a federal voice in education, we’ve all benefited. The vilified feds are spending the money necessary to ensure special-education services and children are afforded an equal opportunity to be educated.

Most states have signed onto federally backed common academic standards, a smart approach that recognizes Algebra II shouldn’t look any different in Indiana than in Washington.

Roll back the vision that brought us this system of standards and equality? I don’t think so.

Lynne K. Varner is a columnist for The Seattle Times. Readers may send her email at [email protected]. (c)2011 The Seattle Times. Distributed by MCT Information Services.