Tougher standards for schools and politicians

By: - February 3, 2005 10:37 pm

There were two headlines about high schools in the Thursday morning edition of the News and Observer in Raleigh. “High school may get tougher” and “State’s high school dropouts rise.”

Think about that for a second, more kids dropping of school and state education officials want to make it tougher to graduate. Before you think this is some anti-accountability rant, it’s not at all.

Schools and teachers should be held accountable and standards for graduation should be high. But shouldn’t top education officials be accountable too? Shouldn’t we judge state lawmakers commitment to education by high standards?

Politicians like to talk tough about standards, high expectations, and a rigorous curriculum. That gets them the headlines. Then they reassure us that they understand that at-risk kids need more attention, that poor schools need more resources, that effective anti-dropout programs will be expanded. That is part of the balanced program they promise.

But a funny thing always seems to happen on the way to the budget bottom line. President Bush sold his No Child Left Behind initiative by promising a specific amount of new federal money for states in exchange for a series of new wide-ranging accountability measures. Congress passed the plan.

The states established the new system of measuring progress but the money was far less than promised. The budget President Bush presented to Congress last year was almost $10 billion short. But the program got the headlines.

The scene is repeated with virtually every new education initiative. North Carolina’s standardized testing program, the ABCs of education, was designed to identify students at the beginning of the year who were struggling and help those students catch up so they could pass an end of grade test and be promoted.

The testing program began amid protests from education advocates that remediation programs were under funded. They were right.

Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has ruled that every child in North Carolina has the right to a sound basic education and ordered the state to address violations of that right by increasing funding for disadvantaged students. The General Assembly has ignored Manning’s order and last session refused to come up with any of the $220 million that is needed.

Finally, it is not much a secret that kids from families who are struggling economically are far more likely to have problems at school. Kids are poor because their families are poor. Yet year after year human service programs that serve those families are woefully under funded by the same politicians who claim to be strong supporters of education.

Let’s make standards tougher and hold students and teachers accountable. Absolutely. But let’s hold politicians accountable too, by making sure that they provide the funding they always promise as part of tougher standards. And let’s demand that they stop stealing from programs that help poor families at home to pay for programs to help poor kids at school. If we really don’t want to leave any children behind, we have to invest in both.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066