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Ideals Meet Politics in Schools Debate

By Clarence Page

I love idealists. They offer us a vision of how things might be if our lawmakers truly lived up our dreams.

Yet, like overzealous soldiers in combat, they sometimes make you want to grab them by the collar and pull them back out of the line of fire.

Those thoughts came to mind earlier this week as Jonathan Kozol, the award-winning author and activist, entered his 75th day on a "partial hunger strike." He's protesting the six-year-old No Child Left Behind Act for education reform that Congress is gearing up to reauthorize.

At 71 years of age, even a "partial hunger strike" is impressive and alarming for those of us who care about his health. He's only drinking liquids, he said, but on doctor's orders he eats solid foods when the impact of hunger appears to be serious enough to cause permanent damage.

"If I sound a little weak, I apologize, he told a news conference in Washington. "I am dreaming of delicious dinners."
Kozol is an iconic figure in education. Back in 1967 he wrote a best-selling, award-winning book titled "Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools." It was about his being fired from the Boston schools for teaching a poem by Langston Hughes, a great African-American writer who was not in the school system's approved list.

Forty years later, No Child Left Behind is, in Kozol's view, repeating the same errors that shortchanged kids in the past, especially in poor minority neighborhoods.

Passed in 2001, the education reform law seeks to get all students reading and doing math at grade level by 2014. Everyone agrees that's a great goal and disagrees on the best way to get there.

The No Child Left Behind law tries to get there by mandating annual math and reading tests, and sanctions schools that don't show improvement. Kozol lambasted that approach for "turning thousands of inner-city schools into Dickensian test-preparation factories." It has effectively "dumbed down" school for poor, urban kids and created "a parallel curriculum that would be rejected out-of-hand" in the suburbs.

Yet, when I pressed him to say whether he found any benefit to No Child Left Behind, he observed after thinking for a few moments that, while there was no dramatic benefit, he appreciated one thing. With President Bush's backing, the law had revived the notion that successful schools were in the national interest, not just a state or local concern.

With that in mind, he has called for a truly radical reform that hints of ideas promoted by the political left and right.
Under No Child Left Behind, parents may transfer their children from a low-performing school after two years to a better school in the same school district. Kozol would extend that. He would require states to authorize and finance a student's right to transfer from a failing district into a successful school in a suburban district.

That radical idea would be permitted, he points out, under the Supreme Court's school segregation ruling in June, as long as it is carried out for reasons other than race.

The idea elegantly borrows from ideals of both right and the left, but unfortunately smacks up against the political realities of right and left, too. After all, conservatives applaud the idea of parents having more choices and in ways that encourage competition between schools. And liberals applaud the desegregation of schools and reduction of isolation by race and income.

But in the real world, I suspect that most suburban parents moved to suburbs to get away from the problems they fear, rightly or wrongly, that urban kids will bring with them. In many cases, black middle class suburban parents are no less worried than their white neighbors.

And urban teachers unions and politicians fear a flight of tax dollars and other resources if they allow their families to escape poor performing schools in their districts. The result is a political stalemate.

Another way to close the gap besides moving students is by moving dollars. The Education Trust, a Washington-based reform organization, supports a draft House bill that would require state and local governments to include teachers' salaries in their calculation as they try to comply with federal requirements of equal funding to all schools. At present, "experienced teachers migrate fast as they can away from high-poverty schools," said Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust. "And they take their big paychecks with them. So the kids are doubly shortchanged. (Their schools) get less money and less experienced teachers."

Closing that loophole would improve funding for older, low-income neighborhood schools and, I hope, provide more incentives for experienced teachers to stick around.

That's a vision of how things might be if our lawmakers truly lived up our dreams. Hunger strikes can call attention to that vision, but it takes political leadership to make such dreams come true.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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