Was NCLB designed to destroy faith in public schools?

by David Safier

About a week ago, I put together a post, Majority leadership wants to move away from public education. In the post, Javan Mesnard, the Senate Majority (read, Republican) Staff Policy Advisor, said that a goal of the Republican leadership was to move toward charter and private schools and away from traditional public schools. It was a watershed moment for me, because, while I've known this to be the agenda of many Arizona conservatives in positions of power and influence, they usually do a good job of hiding it. Mesnard made the mistake of saying it out loud. He let the ideological cat out of the bag.

Today I was pointed to an article about No Child Left Behind in Time Magazine published in June, 2008, which begins,

There was always something slightly insane about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the ambitious education law often described as the Bush Administration's signature domestic achievement.

"Insane" is a pretty good way of describing a law whose stated goal, is, essentially, to recreate the nation as Lake Wobegon where "all the children are above average." Any school that doesn't accomplish that goal is labeled a failure.

Garrison Keillor was kidding. These folks actually wrote that into law. That's either insane — or a way to hide a very different agenda.

The article goes on to say that, in fact, there was very likely method to their madness.

. . . many early critics insisted that No Child Left Behind was nothing more than a cynical plan to destroy American faith in public education and open the way to vouchers and school choice.

Now a former official in Bush's Education department is giving at least some support to that notion. Susan Neuman, a professor of education at the University Michigan who served as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education during George W. Bush's first term, was and still is a fervent believer in the goals of NCLB. And she says the President and then Secretary of Education Rod Paige were too. But there were others in the department, according to Neuman, who saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda — a way to expose the failure of public education and "blow it up a bit," she says. "There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization." [Bold face added]

I've always believed the reason the conservative forces that controlled the Bush agenda pushed NCLB was to further their goal of promoting vouchers. Hell, I didn't believe it. I knew it. But just like Arizona Republican leaders try not to say the words Javan Mesnard let slip, most conservatives won't admit in mixed company (when liberals or the press are around) that they created NCLB to make public schools look like failures, not to improve them.

Between Mesnard's slip of the lip and Neuman's honest observation, we have clear admissions of the conservative war on public education that has been going on at least since the Reagan years. The reason they try not to say it out loud is they know the public doesn't like the idea of privatizing education. Every time vouchers have been put to a popular vote, they've been voted down. So they want to convince us that public education is a failure — when in fact, it's one of the ways we have succeeded in furthering our democratic goals, but it is very much a work in progress that is in much need of improvement – so they can move us away from our emphasis on public schooling and toward their dream of privatization.

3 responses to “Was NCLB designed to destroy faith in public schools?

  1. Ben Kalafut,
    Yes Sweden has an interesting model but it does not match anything being proposed here. Schools in Sweden may not charge more that the voucher amount, they also can’t reject students except when all student slots available have been filled, and they must use teachers who are certified at the same level as public school teachers.

  2. Worth noting also that school choice is the way things are done in such reactionary hells as Sweden and Belgium.

    As a displaced Chicagoan, this is old hat for me: school choice is what middle-class families do there even though they are also forced to subsidize the legacy public schools even while their kids are not an expense to the State. (The reason: public school “reform” is a joke; democratic mechanisms are ill-suited to run schools especially as compared to the market forces acting on both for-profit and non-profit private alternatives. It takes generations to fix public schools, and generations is too long for a child!) I suspect that you object to privatization out of conservatism, as it is novel in AZ.

  3. If a goal of democracy is giving families no immediate “out” from substandard schools or to prevent families (at the margin) from choosing better educations for their children than the one-size-fits-all legacy public schools, then democracy is wrong.