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Dr. Thompson Goes to Washington

Pittsburgh schools superintendent asked to critique federal education law

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"I think the White House is trying to curtail some of the criticism to show it's more good than bad," said Pittsburgh city schools Superintendent John Thompson about last week's request by President George W. Bush's Department of Education that he join an advisory group of 15 superintendents to critique the federal No Child Left Behind act.

 

NCLB, Bush's addition to decades-old education law, threatens schools with increasingly severe sanctions -- culminating in school dissolution and even takeover by private companies -- if they don't achieve 100 percent "proficiency" on state tests, a rate of achievement never before seen in even wealthy districts. (See "School of Hard Knocks," Nov. 12.)

 

Thompson says he wasn't sure why he was asked, but as incoming president of the Large City Schools Superintendents organization, he had helped develop a list of concerns about the law and an agenda of revisions.

 

"I'm going to be fair," he says. "[NCLB] can be a good thing, causing everyone to focus and holding us accountable." On the other hand, "There's just not money there" to hire the personnel or provide the resources necessary to meet the law's ambitious achievement demands. The "school choice" aspect of NCLB, which allows children who attend low-achieving schools to transfer to another public school, is also not funded. The money to transport these students comes from the district's federal Title I subsidy, diverting funds from that program's original purpose: supplemental education programs for poor children.

 

Though Bush and Department of Education Secretary Rod Paige say they've increased federal education funding, "It's like if I gave you $10 for something that costs $40," Thompson explains. "Yeah, I've put more money in, but is it enough? It's an admirable intent, but without the financial wherewithal."

 

Despite Thompson's ambivalence, he had been insisting to the school board at the Nov. 12 meeting that they must follow NCLB's mandates to the letter, whether they agreed with them or not. Bill Isler (of Squirrel Hill) told fellow board members that the district should tell the public that many of the law's provisions were "unfunded mandates," and criticized the fact that some schools -- Bon Air Elementary, Roosevelt Elementary and Mifflin Elementary -- were stigmatized by their placement on a federal warning list for attendance, not for academics. Randall Taylor (North Point Breeze) criticized the law for forcing the district to turn attention to these academically solid schools, diluting the focus on schools and student populations that are truly needy.

 

Such opinions don't much matter to the feds, Thompson responded. "That No Child Left Behind is no game," he told the board. "They are not playing. They'll make an example of you and take your federal funding. They don't care whether you cry or moan, they're in it come hell or high water."

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