Richard Rothstein is a Prospect contributing editor, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley School of Law.
The next president has a unique opportunity to start from scratch in education policy, without the deadweight of a failed, inherited No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The new president and Congress can recapture the "small d" democratic mantle by restoring local control of education, while initiating policies for which the federal government is uniquely suited -- providing better achievement data and equalizing the states' fiscal capacity to provide for all children.
Last fall and again in the spring, the government administered a standardized literacy and math test to all children in the Head Start program. It's being given again this year. Four-year-olds are asked to count objects, name alphabet letters and simple geometrical shapes, understand directions, characterize facial expressions, and identify animals, body parts, and other objects in pictures.
State and federal law assume that the quality of public education can be gauged by the number of students who reach the "proficiency" mark on a standardized test. Indeed, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law provides serious penalties for schools that fail to make sufficient annual gains in these numbers. It is a terribly misguided policy.
On December 11, 2000, in a decision now headed to the Supreme Court, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, violates the separation of church and state. The program provides tuition vouchers of $2,500 for low-income children to attend private schools. Over fourth-fifths of the students who benefit attend religious schools, and most of these are Catholic. In a bitter dissent, Judge James L. Ryan said the majority decision "sentenc[es] nearly 4,000 poverty-level, mostly minority, children in Cleveland to return to the indisputably failed Cleveland public schools."