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Kris Wallman, Fargo, Published April 18 2012

Schools not Berg priority?

North Dakotans have a long history of valuing a quality system of public education that prepares our young people for a bright future. Now is a critical time for our state leaders to continue that tradition. Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., agree that addressing challenges with public education is a priority.

Bills in the U.S. House and Senate by each of the respective education committees have made progress toward improving the No Child Left Behind Act. However, despite both bills garnering bipartisan support, the legislative process appears to have stalled. It is incumbent upon state leaders to lend their voices and support to bills that improve public education when so much is at stake for schoolchildren.

Ten years ago, President George W. Bush’s signature on the domestic policy initiative – the landmark follow-up to President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 – passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. The No Child Left Behind Act intended to challenge what Bush famously labeled the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and to narrow the achievement gap. Yet some features of NCLB have proven cumbersome and ineffective.

An emphasis on state testing and reading and math targets has caused some schools and teachers to “teach to the test,” rather than engage in the more traditional work of preparing young people for adult life. Additionally, schools that do not make Adequate Yearly Progress toward math and reading targets are not better supported, but are punished with restrictions on federal dollars and with continuously rising standards.

This paradoxical provision of NCLB has the effect of making things worse. Once a school misses the AYP goal, it is nearly impossible to catch up with restricted funding as a consequence. While we can agree with NCLB to spotlight schools with poor results, it seems clear that reducing federal funding in those schools is the wrong remedy.

Measurable outcomes and better accountability and transparency are essential when it comes to any publicly funded endeavor.

Under the current administration, NCLB has returned to being termed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In March, the House Education and Workforce Committee approved two bills to reauthorize portions of ESEA. The bills provide for accountability measures, but allow for greater local flexibility in targeting federal funds to improve outcomes.

I asked North Dakota’s senators and congressman if they were on board with an improved version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Both Hoeven and Conrad said they would support reauthorization in a timely way. I asked Congressman Rick Berg, R-N.D., if he would sign on and his reply was, “We need to rein in our out-of-control deficit.” Indeed our nation’s debt must be reduced, but ESEA spending accounts for about

1 percent of overall federal spending. Reforms are an effort to improve outcomes and efficiencies. Hampering our state’s (and nation’s) ability to prepare young people is not the most prudent way to reduce debt.

Representing North Dakota in our nation’s Capitol demands setting spending and legislative priorities. Conrad and Hoeven have represented North Dakota well in their consideration of public education – I know I’m not alone when I say: “Thank you!”

To Berg, our lone voice in the House, I say that I hope his priorities also come to reflect those values. It is my hope that collaborative solutions to educational challenges take precedence over partisan political posturing. North Dakotans have come to expect leadership in Washington that doesn’t come at the expense young people.

Wallman is a member of the Fargo School Board.

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