Pot vs. Kettle

As you may know, Tuesday marked the No Child Left Behind Act’s sixth birthday. At best, it was approached with mixed emotions, like a person’s 50th—it’s a nice milestone, but everything is starting to ache and will almost certainly just get worse. So while President Bush headed to sweet home Chicago to cut cake and blow up balloons for his signature domestic achievement, Senator Edward Kennedy—a crucial NCLB proponent in 2001—wrote a somewhat doleful op-ed in the Washington Post about the once promising law’s problems, a judge resurrected a lawsuit challenging NCLB as an unfunded mandate, and people with sense called for the law’s demise.

Yesterday, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings spoke at the National Press Club in an effort to keep whatever joyful NCLB partying there might have been going. I won’t rehash most of what she said, but want to focus on one part in particular, and encourage you to read her whole speech to see if it doesn’t fully illustrate the point I’m about to make.

Here’s what she said toward the end of her talk:

We are hearing all kinds of rhetoric from the campaign trail: proposals to “scrap” NCLB, to “overhaul” the law, or to “turn around” education in just three years. As a parent, taxpayer, and voter I want more than a sound bite or quick fix. I want someone who recognizes that NCLB has sparked a more sophisticated dialogue that’s driving real improvement for all students. We have to ask, which comes first, politics or kids? No Child Left Behind is not just a catchy phrase. It’s a statement about who we are, and what kind of country we want to be.

Spellings makes a very important point here, one that I have made ad nauseum: Government control of education is almost always driven by political, not educational, concerns, which is why we spend tons of money on education and get almost no positive return on it. But if Spellings truly recognizes and believes this, how can she continue to support NCLB or any other government control of education? After all, as long as government controls schooling, politicians will control it, guaranteeing that politics, not kids, will almost always come first.

The answer, of course, is that Spellings and her boss are politicians; government provides their jobs and their identities, and they are just as interested in quick fixes and whatever works best for them politically as any other of their ilk. Spellings’ speech, with all its lovely, inspirational—but ultimately empty and deceptive—platitudes, illustrates this brilliantly, as does the politically unbeatable name of her beloved law. I mean, if you’re against No Child Left Behind you want to leave kids behind, right?

NCLB, like everything else run by government, is by its very nature politicized. That’s why we need to stop listening to any and all politicians who promise to fix education through more government, and demand the one thing that will actually rip away paralyzing politics: Getting government out of education.