“This is groundbreaking legislation that enhances the federal government’s commitment to our nation’s public education system, dramatically reconfigures the federal role in public education, and embraces many of the principles and programs that I believe are critical to improving the public education system…Last year I worked with 10 of my Democratic colleagues to introduce legislation that would help break the stalemate and move beyond the tired, partisan debates of the past. Our education proposal became the foundation of the bill before us today.” — John Kerry, regarding No Child Left Behind, 2001

Kerry would fight to change the No Child Left Behind law to assure that our schools focus on teaching high standards to all children, and do not become drill and kill test prep institutions. — from www.johnkerry.com

Much hay has been made by conservative pundits over John Kerry’s perceived flip-a-roo on No Child Left Behind. Reading his position paper on education, one gets the distinct feeling that Kerry is anti-NCLB, from oblique references to “problems with the law” to the above quote criticizing NCLB’s tight focus on standardized test results. Yet he took credit for helping write the bill in 2001. So what gives? Is Kerry really the waffler that Karl Rove and his attack dogs would have us believe?

Yes and no. Most of Kerry’s problems with NCLB seem to be the result of what he perceives to be broken funding promises by the Bush Administration. By Kerry’s estimation, “President Bush walked away from his commitment to fund public education, shortchanging public schools by $6 billion this year and he is on track to fall $8 billion short next year.” In other words, NCLB made promises that Bush knew his budget wouldn’t be able to keep–and sent “mandates from Washington to school districts without providing the resources needed to carry them out.” Kerry’s proposed solution is what he calls a New National Education Trust Fund, which will require “any new education program Congress authorizes” to be “automatically funded by law.” In terms of specific numbers, this means an estimated $11 billion increase (from $23.8 to “about $35″) over four years. This includes additional funding for special ed–which, according to Kerry, is currently federally funded at less than half the level promised by NCLB–and $25 billion to “stop cuts and layoffs in education…includ[ing] teacher layoffs, school closures, and shortened school years.”

Statistics available at the Education Commission of the States’ website certainly seem to suggest a wide disconnect between NCLB and the states. Only 19 states received a full overall passing grade (disclaimer: Only Washington D.C. received a failing grade, and it–as near as I can tell–has the highest per-student expenditure in the nation). Not a single state received a passing grade in the “Highly Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom” category (again, D.C. received the only outright failing grade), and only Indiana and Connecticut received passing grades in the “High Quality Professional Development” category.

Most of the sources I could dig up indicate a budget shortfall along the lines of what Kerry suggests in his position paper; Senator Mark Dayton (D-MN), in his NCLB report, says Bush’s latest budget “proposed $9.4 billion less for NCLB in 2005 than was promised when he signed the bill into law” and refers to the bill as “an unfunded federal mandate.”

It would seem reasonable to give Kerry the benefit of the doubt here, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s a seasoned Washington vet with decades of experience. It isn’t as though he had no idea the money could disappear. He presents himself as the author of a wonderful little piece of legislation that has been shockingly corrupted by Bush–yet, near as I can tell, no one has changed a single word of the bill since it was signed into law. What was wrong with it then is wrong with it now, and if Kerry had as much to do with NCLB as he wanted people to believe back in 2001, he should have known that. The righteous act works well for soundbites, but rings hollow; ultimately, Kerry–and everyone else who voted for NCLB–is just as culpable as President Bush.

And when it comes to the deficiencies of the law itself, note that Candidate Kerry is mostly silent. The second part of his education platform rests on adjustments to NCLB, yet they are adjustments that are either purposefully vague or miss the point entirely. He says we must “judge schools on more than test scores,” which I think pretty much everyone can agree with, yet he fails to suggest just exactly what will comprise these additional standards. He calls for “rewards for states that implement high standards,” and accuses NCLB of unintentionally rewarding underachieving states and districts. Then he tosses a few bones to the National Educators’ Association. He promises to ensure that “teachers and school districts can remove chronically disruptive and violent students from the classroom,” and says these no-goodniks will be placed in special “second-chance schools.” He calls for higher pay rates for “highly qualified teachers,” and promises funding for professional development requirements, which should earn him the votes of a few hundred thousand educators. Nowhere does he provide actual numbers. Nowhere does he explain why these provisions weren’t simply written into the original bill.

Meanwhile, Kerry doesn’t even bother to address any of NCLB’s real fundamental flaws, such as this whopper, outlined in this article by Sam Dillon of the New York Times:

The law says that every racial and demographic group in each school must score higher on standardized tests every year; if any group fails to advance for two consecutive years, a school is labeled “needing improvement.” A school that does not shed the label by improving students’ scores may have its principal and teachers replaced and face other sanctions, including closing.

That’s a stupid idea on its face, but this next part really does seal the deal:

“[The law’s] formula will generate some staggering statistics, because it doesn’t distinguish between schools that fall short by just a little and those that miss the mark by a mile,” said Michael E. Ward, president of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the superintendent of schools in North Carolina, where officials estimate that at least 60 percent of schools will be designated under the law as needing improvement. “I support the legislation, but I don’t want it to collapse of its own negative weight.”

As everyone knows, variation is normal in educational testing. If School A’s fifth graders are tested this week, then given an equivalent test next week, their group score may well be somewhat lower (or higher). That would not necessarily mean that any negative (or positive) instruction had intervened. Beyond that, School A may have a stronger group of fifth graders this year, and a weaker group of fifth graders next year. If next year’s score is lower than this year’s, it doesn’t mean that School A is providing weaker instruction.

“The top education officials of many states have complained that the federal regulations…will eventually lead to labeling a majority of America’s 90,000 public schools as failing,” Dillon writes. He describes Bush praising a school for its obvious excellence–with the school tagged as “failing” three months later. And please, understand one further problem: Schools will cheat their keisters off to avoid this law’s reach. The law will fail to ID our troubled schools. But it will further compromise our public school testing, essentially achieving the opposite of what it claims to do. But Kerry’s got nothing to say about this.

Finally, in a bizarre twist, he pledges “dedicated funding for charter schools”! It’s just a single throwaway line at the end of the paper, but it’s there in black and white. Are Kerry’s supporters reading this stuff? Last time I checked, charter schools weren’t a top priority for Democrats, who tend to be a public-schools-loving bunch. As Gerald Bracey said yesterday:

“When charter schools came along, I was ambivalent. I didn’t start reaching firm — mostly negative — conclusions until the Florida State University Charter School Accountability Center commissioned this paper on charter school accountability and I started looking at the evaluations.

“The data that emerged, and it was a huge amount of data that came out in 2003, was overwhelmingly negative. There was a large study from RAND (Corp.) about California charters, and at one point it said California charter school students are keeping pace with demographically similar students in (traditional) public schools.

“I looked at the 2003 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) data, and in fourth-grade reading, California was 49th of 50 states. And in eighth grade, they tied Hawaii for last place.

“So to say that charter school kids are keeping pace in California means they’re keeping pace with the lowest-scoring kids in the country. I mean, those kids are not doing as well as kids in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana, and the traditional bottom feeders.

“The original promise, the one thing that all the charter school advocates said in the beginning was there’s a trade-off — you give us autonomy, we’ll give you improved achievement. And in fact it has not worked out that way at all.”

Overall, Kerry’s education paper seems to be a masterpiece of modern campaigning–loaded with bluster, larded with obfuscation, willfully short on real information. In short, just what you’d expect from a stumping candidate. Ain’t politics grand?

Next: Kerry’s five-point plan for Mad Cow Disease.