Enough, I get it already! Hillary is different than Bush. Barack is different than Bush. At the risk of sounding outright crazy, I think they both need to be more like Bush — for the sake of our children.
Let me explain. Less than 12 months into office, President George W. Bush pushed in the No Child Left Behind Act and wrecked shop on the nation's old education policy. Bush's re-authoring of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education act completely turned education policy on its head. While people often talk about the first year of a new presidency as an adjustment period, we can't afford for Obama or Clinton, or even McCain to "adjust" to their new position. They must step in and step up by completely scrapping No Child Left Behind – just as Bush did to old policy.
McCain has already suggested that the most he would do is tinker with Bush's education policy. The Democratic candidates promise they would do more. If you follow Obama and Clinton along the campaign trail, there is a decent amount of talk around education. But not enough. That makes me nervous. Both Clinton and Obama decry the lack of funding that came with NCLB, but the dollars are a small issue. Even with sufficient funds, the policy is still deeply flawed. While Clinton has alluded to discontinuing NCLB and Obama has suggested revising it, both candidates need to make sure that the next policy they put in place puts children at its center, not achievement scores.
Sure, No Child Left Behind did a great job at identifying inequality in schools. But demonstrating inequality is the easy part. Working to fix inequality is where the real work begins!
The first step they must take toward undoing the mess created by No Child Left Behind is to listen, not just to anyone, but to the people closest to the problem: teachers and students. Through my research and casual conversation, I have heard teachers from inner-city to rural schools criticize the forced emphasis on testing of students.
More tests or even different tests will not solve the problems of education. We need strong leadership that will not only revise testing instruments, but will assure that the educational curriculum provides basic skills, is relevant to a changing global society, and produces critical thinkers. The erosion of a full-figured educational curriculum began before Bush's era (unfortunately, he can't be blamed for everything). It now needs to be reestablished by qualified educators and researchers who understand both the current and projected needs of our children.
The second step is to recognize that we will not have equality within schools until we work on achieving equality outside of these institutions. While scouring reports and pages for both candidates, the first thing I noticed was that neither have directly addressed the pink elephant in the room—SEGREGATION. Schools are now more racially segregated than they were during the era of the Jim Crow South. How did these schools end up so segregated? In large part, it is because housing is segregated. No citizen, politician, or leader should look at that fact and assume that we'll see equality without taking direct steps to work against residential segregation and school segregation.
Over the past eight years, we've seen the opportunity to desegregate public schools shrink more and more due to the Supreme Court's decision to limit the use of voluntary desegregation plans. Just as Bush stood against busing and against considering race when making decisions about education, Obama and Clinton must advocate on the opposite side to give our children better opportunities.
Now, I do not advocate desegregation because I think having black and white students next to each other will magically create equality. Instead, I encourage desegregation because we still operate within two systems where the best resources, teachers, and opportunities belong to the most affluent, and not to the most in need. I'm also not naïve enough to think desegregation and access to resources will revolutionize education, but it will be a step in the right direction for ensuring more equal schools and better opportunities for our children.
An additional step our next president must take is supporting new ideas. While neither Obama nor Clinton will appear in your classroom to talk directly with your son or daughter about civic participation, environmental sustainability, or technology, they can provide support for people who will. Reducing red tape and supporting pilot and already-successful innovative education programs can provide supplemental ways to help dissolve the influence of inequality that has been festering in our schools since the 1800s.
The next president could follow the lead of agencies like Brown Rudnick and states like North Carolina by expanding similar grant opportunities to a national level. Under the NCLB act, poor performing schools are suffering. They have been asked to do more with fewer resources, while better performing schools have been given more. This twisted inversion of the Robin Hood fairytale has stripped innovation and drive from the schools that really need it the most.
Bush's presidency will be remembered for a number of things ranging from wars on terror to the onset of a recession. Yet the No Child Left Behind act may have the most enduring effect of all his policies because it directly affects our children. We simply can't afford to inherit NCLB's crippling ways; the next president should take a page out of Bush's playbook and completely scrap the previous administration's education policy as soon as they enter office. In this instance (only), it seems to make sense to try to "be more like Bush".
R. L'Heureux Lewis is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology & Black Studies Program at the City University of New York.