Opinion

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

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

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

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.

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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.

And it's the same party that has frequently sneered at the "Old Europe," as former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it, insisting that America retained a different culture, history, and purpose from democracies across the Atlantic. Yet NCLB has moved us ever closer to European models of education, which are much more centralized than the United States.

But ours is a strange kind of centralization, requiring the same results without providing the same resources. Washington never fully funded NCLB, leaving states and localities to pick up the difference.

If you don't reach your proficiency targets, the theory goes, just try harder.

And NCLB takes a surprisingly narrow view of "proficiency" itself, measuring it by standardized tests alone. As any teacher could tell you, such tests frequently fail to capture the real achievement – and the real deficiencies – of flesh-and-blood children. But when it comes to assessment, it's Washington's way or the highway.

That's not the American way. Of course the federal government should help poorer school districts, which are asked to do more with less. And of course it should insist that schools assess their students, in a wide variety of ways, so we can figure out what they need.

Beyond that, though, it's best for the feds to butt out. As Republicans correctly assert, American public education has always been primarily a state and local affair. And so it will remain, even in the NCLB era. The trick is to find ways for the federal government to aid schools without overwhelming them.

And that brings us back to school construction. In 1999, a US Department of Education study found that 75 percent of American schools were in various stages of "disrepair" – and that it would take $127 billion to get them out of it. But the Bush administration limited construction assistance to so-called Impact Aid buildings, that is, schools whose budgets were significantly affected by actions of the federal government. The vast majority of schools got nothing, at least not for building or repair.

So let's get this straight. The federal government can require states to penalize or even close schools that fail to show progress on standardized tests.

But federal aid to school construction? Too intrusive, some Republicans say.

That doesn't make any sense. And it contradicts Franklin Roosevelt, who recognized school construction as an ideal venue for federal intervention.

Let states and localities decide how to educate kids, Roosevelt said, and let the federal government help them do it. Seventy years later, it's a formula we could all stand to learn.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His next book, "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," will be published in June.

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