On education Obama may be Bush-lite

Is There a Difference Between the Education Agenda of George Bush and Barack Obama? Answer: Not really!

President Obama’s historic election sparked public excitement about getting rid of Bush’s retro policies. However, when it comes to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the controversial education law that is up for reauthorization this year, President Obama seems to be reusing Bush’s old stuff.

Flushed with surplus money from the Clinton administration, but cursed with no domestic agenda, George Jr made the No Child Left Behind Act the cornerstone of his administration in 2001.

NCLB advanced the American “testocracy”, increasing the fed’s role in education by requiring states to test kids as early as third grade and pushing underperforming schools to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) or be shut out from Title 1 funding, federal money that goes directly to poor school districts.

However, NCLB mandates too much testing and does not go far enough in helping cash-strapped states improve the glaring issues that hinder learning in many urban and rural school systems – relic school buildings where classrooms are overcrowded and ceilings leak. There is not one state in the union that does not feel the heavy handed slap of NCLB, with some leveling lawsuits against the US government in response.

Yet Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, simply want to “tweak” NCLB, not end it. They want to simply put more money behind the mandates, but keep Bush’s problematic education policy in place.

Actually Obama’s allegiance may not be to George Bush or Bush’s previous education agenda, but to Ted Kennedy. That’s right, NCLB is really a Kennedy brainchild dating back to the 1960s when Ted’s brother Robert Kennedy wanted more accountability under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (NCLB’s parent) as part of the “War on Poverty” in the U.S.

NCLB is a bi-partisan act, with liberal and centrist Democrats taking the lead. Obama with his pragmatic politics (read: centrist politics) does not want to reject a policy that is closely linked to his party and more importantly to Ted, the person who stiff-armed Hilary to support his candidacy.

I am an Obama supporter and believe he has some good policy ideas – for starters putting more money into education. Obama is also a fan of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, a multi-service organization that provides everything from parenting classes to charter schools to primarily Black families in Harlem. He states that he wants to replicate the Harlem model nationwide.

In a recent Harvard study Geoffrey Canada’s charter school, Promise Academy, is lauded as closing the test gap between Black and white students in NYC. Promising news. But I’m skeptical of the results. The jury is still out on whether charter schools produce distinctively better educational results than traditional public schools and can support the masses of childen in need of a quality education.

Further, the Children’s Zone’s approach is to help black families in Harlem by triaging them with social supports and programs in addition to schooling, a fact that the Harvard study didn’t take into account for perhaps helping to close the test gap.

There is enough research out there to prove that if families are helped with more coordinated policies and funding for health and dental care, housing and employment on top of a quality education, rather than just raising test scores as NCLB requires, “gaps” will close all over the place.

Let’s push Obama to move quickly out of the convenient shadow of a narrow-minded NCLB and political loyalties and take bold new, orchestrated steps to help poor and working class Black children with multiple support systems in, as well as beyond, the classroom walls.

Noel Anderson is the co-author of Our Schools Suck: Students Talk Back to a Segregated Nation on the Failures of Urban Education and Education As Freedom: African-American Educational Thought and Activism