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On Uncle Sam's role in public schools, Republicans have it backward

Federal construction money is OK; No Child Left Behind isn't.

By / February 5, 2009

New York

Hey, look out for the Big Bad Federal Government! It's coming soon, to build a school near you.

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That's what Republicans are saying about President Obama's stimulus plan, which includes $20 billion for school building and renovation.

Throughout American history, the story goes, school construction has been a local or state concern. But under Mr. Obama's plan, the federal government would stick its nose where it doesn't belong.

Listen to Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R) of California and the ranking member of the House education committee: "By putting the federal government in the business of building schools, Democrats may be irrevocably changing the federal government's role in education in this country." There's only one problem with this claim: It's not true.

During our last great economic crisis, in the 1930s, the federal government spent heavily on school construction. And it happened under – you guessed it – a Democratic president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal devoted more than $1 billion to build and repair schools.

Even more, the GOP objection ignores the truly unprecedented expansion of federal authority that occurred under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). And that measure was signed into law by a Republican president, George W. Bush.

You want federal intrusion? Then NCLB is for you. It requires states to test all students in Grades 3-8 in reading and math. States must certify that all schools are making "adequate yearly progress," providing assistance and then sanctions for schools that fail. Schools must hire "highly qualified teachers" in all core academic subjects.

And they must employ "scientifically-based" teaching strategies in the classroom.

Finally, NCLB also mandates that all students – that is, every student in America – attain "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014. So in five short years, No Child Left Behind won't simply be a slogan. It will be the law.

All of this comes courtesy of the same Republican Party that still venerates Ronald Reagan, who didn't think the federal government had any business in public schools at all. Indeed, Reagan ran in 1980 on a platform of abolishing the then-new federal Department of Education.