I was 10-years-old when President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law. Since my mother is a public school teacher, the words “no child left behind” almost immediately became common parlance in my family’s dinner table conversation. Whenever the talk turned to public schools, those words were there without fail: no child left behind. I was too young to know what they meant, but to me, those words were the debate.
As I’ve grown older and angrier about our schools, I’ve come to understand what the words “no child left behind” really mean, and, more importantly, what they don’t mean. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was a bipartisan effort to close the achievement gap by increasing federal funding for public K-12 education. Schools receiving this funding are required to test their students ad nauseam, and if a school repeatedly fails to improve its students’ test scores, its funding gets slashed, and parents are given the option of sending their kids to a different public school. So there it is: No Child Left Behind. You love it, you hate it, but if you’re interested in education reform, you talk about it endlessly.
Ten years later, No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization, and they’re hashing out the same old questions in Congress. How much flexibility should states have in allocating federal funds? Should funding be contingent on a school making “Adequate Yearly Progress?” Essentially, they all boil down to one question: How do we divide up federal funding? How do we slice up this pie?
So Congress goes on making noise, as it does, and we interpret this noise as a debate about how to fix our schools. Sooner or later (probably later), Congress will come to some contentious compromise, and the federal budget will shift a little bit, spending a little more or a little less on our schools. We’ll wipe our hands of the matter and get on with our lives, satisfied that education has had its day in court. If the achievement gap widens and our international rankings fall, we’ll blame the feds, and if the gap closes and our rankings rise, we’ll credit the feds.
This would all be well and good, if we had a federal school system. If we lived pretty much anywhere in Europe or Asia, this would be a legitimate conversation about education reform, because almost every country in the industrialized world funds their schools centrally and equally.
But not America. Federal funding makes up about seven percent of the average public school budget in America. Seven percent. Of course, federal funding makes up a higher percentage of the budget for a poorer school than for a wealthier school, but on average, all this No Child Left Behind noise is an argument about seven percent of a school’s budget.
We primarily fund our schools with local property taxes. States dump whatever money they can spare into the poorer neighborhoods, and the federal government drops a few pennies in the bucket. These pennies soon come to dominate the national discourse on education reform, because, let’s face it, we’re easily bored by state and local politics. Even after these attempts by state and federal governments to level the playing field, funding disparities between the schools in the suburbs and those in the ghettos remain enormous, and students are left holding the bill.
The results? The wealthiest 10 percent of our school districts spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest 10 percent. African American students graduate from high school at a rate of 54 percent, Latinos at 56 percent and Native Americans at 51 percent, while our white students graduate at a rate of 77 percent. And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, our African American and Latino 12th graders are at the same reading and math levels as our white eighth graders.
The achievement gap is not new. We’ve been arguing about its causes for a long time now: segregation, the tracking system, culture, curriculum, not enough testing, too much testing, not enough school choice, too much school choice and, of course, unfair allocation of federal funds. No one ever seems to talk about the profound structural injustice staring us in the face, though: We fund our schools with local property taxes.
Really, guys? No one’s freaking out about this?
We couldn’t create a better system for perpetuating inequality if we tried. We call it public education, and imagine it to be some great social equalizer, and then we ask each neighborhood to foot the bill for its own children. The rich kids go to rich schools because the rich kids have rich parents, while the poor kids … well, you get the idea.
Educational injustice runs deep in this country, and a few more billion dollars from the states or the feds is not going to fix it. This is immediately obvious to anyone who looks at how our schools are funded. Arguing over how to allocate federal funds is like debating what color Band-Aid to put on a gunshot wound. It is worse than useless, because it masquerades as a solution.
America will not make meaningful progress in closing the achievement gap until we radically restructure the way we fund our schools. Personally, I’m in tentative favor of privatizing the whole damn thing and letting the federal government distribute universal school vouchers. Under this system, a parent would be reimbursed, up to a certain extent, for the tuition of his or her school of choice.
I won’t pretend to have all the answers, though. I just want to make sure that no one misinterprets the debate surrounding No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top or any other federal funding distribution scheme, as a debate about how to fix our schools. It is a sham, played out by Congress and the President at the expense of the poor. Let’s recognize it as such.
Tom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.