By Greg Palast
Excerpt from Armed Madhouse
They take away your overtime, your 40-hour week, your regulatory protection against corporate marauders, your right to courtroom justice, your protection against unfair trade, even the right to get your ballot counted. But there’s always hope. Hope is the last thing to go. And your hope is your kids, that they’ll have an opportunity you didn’t have. On January 21, 2004, the President told you they’d have to take that away too. On that night, deep into his State of the Union sermon to Congress, when sensible adults had turned off the tube or kicked in the screen, our President opened a new front in the class war. And like the one in Iraq, it began with a lie. “By passing the No Child Left Behind Act,” our President told us, “We are regularly testing every child…and making sure they have better options when schools are not performing.”
“And at Daddy’s Polo Club, the Waiter Is Called A…”
The core of No Child Left Behind is the early-age test. And here’s what they’re testing. The following is taken from the actual practice test given eight-year-olds in the State of New York in 2006. The test determined which children should advance, which should be left behind in the third grade.
Ready, class? The year 1999 was a big one for the Williams sisters. In February, Serena won her first pro singles championship. In March, the sisters met for the first time in a tournament final. Venus won. And at doubles tennis, the Williams girls could not seem to lose that year.
And here’s one of the four questions:
The story says that in 1999, the sisters could not seem to lose at doubles tennis. This probably means when they played
A two matches in one day
B against each other
C with two balls at once
D as partners
OK, class, do you know the answer? (By the way, I didn’t cheat: There’s nothing else about “doubles” in the text.) For your information, I got this from a school in which more than half the students live below the poverty line. There is no tennis court. There is no tennis court in any of the poverty area schools of New York. But out in the Hamptons, every school has a tennis court. In Forest Hills and Westchester there are as many tennis courts as the schoolkids have live-in maids. Which kids are best prepared to answer the question about “doubles tennis”? The eight-year-olds in Brownsville who’ve never seen a tennis match or the kids whose mommies disappear for two hours every Wednesday with Enrique the tennis coach?
Is this test a measure of “reading comprehension” — or a measure of wealth accumulation? If you have any doubts about what the test is measuring, look at the next question, based on another part of the test, which reads (and I could not make this up):
Helpfully, for Puerto Rican kids, it explains that a “country club” is the “place where people meet.”
Yes, but which people? Class war dismissed.
He said it. And then that little tongue came out; that weird way our President sticks his tongue out between his lips like a little kid who knows he’s fibbing. Like a snake licking a rat. I saw that snaky tongue dart out and I thought, “He knows.” And what he knows is this: There are no “better options” for failing children, but there are better uses for them.
The President ordered testing and more testing to hunt down, identify and target millions of children too expensive, too heavy a burden, to educate. Here’s how No Child Left Behind works in the classrooms of Houston and Chicago and New York. Under the No Child Left law, millions of eight-year-olds are given lists of words and phrases. They try to read. Then they are graded like USDA beef: some prime, some OK, many (most in fact) failed. Once the eight-year-olds are stamped and sorted, the parents of children with the test mark of Cain await fulfillment of the President’s tantalizing promise, to “make sure they have better options.” But there are none. In the delicious doublespeak of class war, when the tests have winnowed out the chaff and kids stamped failed, No Child Left results in that child being left behind in the same grade to repeat the failure another year. And another year and another year. Hint: When decoding politicians’ babble, to get to the real agenda, don’t read their lips, read their budgets. And in his budget, our President couldn’t spare one thin dime for education, not ten cents. Mr. Big Spender provided for a derisory 8.4 cents on the dollar of the cost of primary and secondary schools. Congress appropriated a halfpenny of the nation’s income — just one-half of one percent of America’s twelve-trillion-dollar GDP — for primary and secondary education. President Bush actually requested less. While Congress succeeded in prying out an itty-bitty increase in voted funding, that doesn’t mean the cash is actually given to the schools. Fifteen states have sued the federal government on the grounds that the cost of new testing imposed on schools, $3.9 billion, eats up the entire new funding budgeted for No Child Left.
I can’t say that Mr. Bush doesn’t offer “better options” to the kids stamped “failed.” Under No Child Left, if enough kids flunk the tests, their school is marked a failure and its students win the right, under the law, to transfer to any successful school in their district. You can’t provide more opportunity than that. But Bush does not provide it, he promises it, without putting up a single penny to make it happen. In New York, in 2004, a third of a million students earned the right to transfer to better schools — in which there were only 8,000 places open. New York is typical. Nationwide, only one out of two hundred students eligible to transfer manage to do it. Well, there’s always the army. (That “option” did not go unnoticed: No Child has a special provision requiring schools to open their doors to military recruiters.) There’s not a lot of loot for schoolkids in the No Child Left law, but Barbara Bush’s kids made out just fine. Her youngest, Neil Bush, jumped into the No Child biz big time. A company he founded in 1999 in Texas, Ignite! (exclamation point included), promotes robo-teaching. Instead of teachers, kids are plunked in front of a TV screen and blasted with automated lessons. It’s cheap and, I’ll admit, quite effective for communicating rote information and preparing children for a world in which they cannot deviate from the orders coming from machines and screens. This may have been what attracted the education ministries of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf to purchase the robot teaching system, though one wonders if the sheikdoms see non-educational bonuses in drop- ping a few petro-dollars in a Bush child’s pocket. Neil also found an education reform soulmate in exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who met with Neil in Riga, Latvia, in September 2005. Berezovsky is advising Ignite! with a particular eye to the Russian market, where he himself cannot go because of some trouble with the law. (The meeting won’t be repeated, at least in Riga. When the meeting between the First Brother and the fugitive was disclosed, the Latvian government banned Berezovsky’s reentry.)
No Child Left does provide help to underfinanced schools in the form of Supplemental Educational Services (SES). In the old days, this was called “tutoring,” but that’s when we energized community volunteers. Today, it’s big business for millions. If several students in a school fail tests, the federal government requires schools to hire tutors from these for-profit outfits. Our President’s federal contribution to these “supplemental services”? Zero. So, how is it funded? A school must pay out 20% of their “Title 1”: fund, their tiny federal subsidy, to hire tutors from private companies. That is, schools must cut back their own teaching staff to pay for the contracts with private tutoring companies. And who are these tutors? By federal law, teachers must be credentialed, trained and tested — but not the tutors who replace them. Their qualifications are…well, there’s the handyman in my apartment building. He was hired by schools-for-profit operator Princeton Review to teach high school math. They contracted to give him the high school math job after he passed a fifth-grade arithmetic proficiency test. Handyman “Joe” (I promised not to use his real name) is quite a bright guy, who in fact knows geometry and trigonometry. But, he said of his fellow tutors, “Half of them about to be sent to high schools could barely handle it — the fifth grade arithmetic.” The Princeton crew gets 20 hours of training versus a minimum of 1,000 hours for the teachers they replace. But teaching isn’t the job. Selling is. “Joe” told us: Last night I accidentally showed up at a training for site directors who are supposed to be educational specialists acting as principals over their teacher-tutors. The site directors were being prepped for “Operation Rapid Deployment.” I shit you not. The Princeton Review now has two weeks to “sell” the “product” to as many “clients” as possible, which means all sorts of promises about one-on- one tutoring (that may or may not be forthcoming).
The imperative is to hire as many local kids and parents as possible, all who get paid per student signed. And the charge is taken out of the school budgets. The more failures, the more cash for the privateers. And the most cash is had when a school fails continuously for five years. Its “option” then is to fire all its teachers or to turn the school over to a private company. This privatization is a money tree for Edison. Not Thomas Edison, the light bulb guy, but Edison Schools, Inc., a company that lifted the brainy man’s name to put over their scheme to eliminate public education in favor of for-profit “charter” schooling for all. Edison Inc. claims their teach-for-the-money theories proved successful in Sherman, Texas, the full-takeover contract they landed in Gov. George Bush’s test run of privatization in 1995. The company advertised worldwide that it boosted the little Texans’ test scores by 5%. But I talked to Sherman’s superintendent of schools, who, the company fails to mention in its sales pitch, ran them out of town in 2000. The superintendent, Phillip Garrett, told me, “They were more about money than teaching.” A lot more money. Sherman schools had to pay an additional $4 million to cover Edison’s unpaid bills for local services. The promise of better education at no extra cost, the ultimate Free Lunch of the school privatizers, was bogus. And the “5%” improvement was called “dishonest”…by Edison’s own president, Benno Schmidt. (Schmidt, in an interview, told me that anyone who claims student improvement with less than five years’ experience is “dishonest” — not realizing he was commenting on his own company’s sales material.) And Sherman’s superintendent said Edison kids fell behind other Texans — no small feat. The President offers one more “option,” one more magic trick left for the rubes in front of their tubes to make them believe that the privileged will share the advantages of education with the rest of us:
The Great School Voucher Hoax
What’s better than free money? Nothing, except maybe immortality or three wishes from your fairy godmother. Or, say, a “voucher” to send your kid to a big-shot school like Phillips Academy, where our President got so smart. The centurions of the better classes love vouchers.
On April 1, 2005, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial, “Educational Nirvana.” Nirvana, in case you don’t know, is a wonderful place, kind of a Hindu heaven. Buddha’s there. But the Journal wasn’t talking about the place where good Buddhists go; it was talking about Arizona. What made Arizona heavenly in the Journal’s view is that the State Senate voted to give a “school voucher” to all parents who want one to pay to send their kid to any school they want. No more would parents be stuck with Arizona’s horrid, failed, crappy schools. And what a godsend for poor kids stuck in dead-end districts brutalized daily by known members of the teachers’ union. And what will this cost the taxpayer?
Nothing! Less than nothing, in fact, because the vouchers will cost only $3,500, while the state currently spends $7,000 per pupil in their current no-good schools. Parents, say The Wall Street Journal and voucher advocates, should have a “choice” of schools, not one chosen for their kids by bureaucrats. The proposal meant to build on the “success” of a five-year-old Arizona program that now provides $1,000 school vouchers.
OK, class: What is wrong here? Umm, well, it’s not so easy to find a good school that will teach your kid for $3,500 a year, and there are exactly none for $1,000. In other words, your school voucher doesn’t get you into school. You can give a poor kid a $3,500 voucher, but it won’t get him into Phillips Academy. Little Antonio can use his voucher for about four weeks of Phillips ($33,000 per school year), at which point he’ll have to go back to picking broccoli outside Phoenix. In other words, the Arizona “voucher” program, like every other school voucher program proposed in the USA, is not a voucher at all.
A voucher is a coupon that lets you get something for no cost. An airline screws up your ticket, you get a hotel voucher, you don’t pay for your room. However, the Arizona “voucher” is nothing but a discount coupon, the kind you get in the mail every day and toss in the recycle bin. So who benefits from this “free” private school program?
According to No Child Left expert Scott Young, 76% of the money handed out for Arizona’s voucher program has gone to children already in private schools. In other words, the $1,000 check from the state turned into a $1,000 subsidy for wealthy parents, a $1,000 discount on private schools for the privileged.
How astonishing: A program touted as a benefit for working-class kids that turns into a subsidy for rich ones. You’re shocked. What about little Antonio? He returns with his unused voucher to his wretched under-financed local school in Apache County, Arizona.
Unfortunately, there are no new textbooks, because the $1,000 voucher has been pocketed by a few parents who are already sending their kids to private school. The tab for the free lunch for the privileged kids is picked up by Antonio and friends: 20% if the local school districts’ federal funds must be used to pay for the buses to transport privileged voucher students. What I don’t understand about the Arizona legislature is why, having discovered this formula for better education for less money, they don’t apply it to other products as well. Why not car vouchers?
“Everyone in Arizona should have a choice of cars! Why should the average Joe be stuck with an old beater when he can have a Mercedes?” All the state has to do is issue “Mercedes” vouchers backed by $3,500 from the state. It doesn’t matter that there’s no Mercedes dealer who will give you the car for $3,500. I’ve never encountered a single opponent of school vouchers, of real vouchers where you choose the school and the state pays. But that ain’t going to happen. You know it. I know it.
And the clowns who are selling these counterfeit “vouchers” know it too. So what’s their game? The answers are in the test, class. The fifteen states that complain that the testing required by No Child Left exceeds the entire federal layout for the program miss the point. Testing is the heart and soul of No Child Left Behind. The new world requires highly educated workers, but not too many.
We saw how rising productivity created gargantuan wealth worldwide in the past two decades for a few. Maintaining the rise of productivity and riches through new technology requires a skilled, imaginative, highly educated, well-trained workforce. In India, very highly skilled workers account for one million jobs — about 2% of the workforce. America can afford to make it 10%. But no more.
What about the other 90%? Someone’s got to unload the goods shipped in from China, stock Wal-Mart’s shelves and ask you, “Do you want fries with that?”
In this flat, tilted new world, we have to adopt the methods used by emperors of Confucian China: Test for the best, cull the rest.
Of course, not everyone takes the same test. Only “Title 1” schools must test students: working class and poor schools. The wealthiest suburban districts are exempt and all schools where students wear designer blazers. It’s true that our President took a test to get into Yale. It had one question: “Was your grandfather, Prescott Bush, a Yale Trustee?” His answer, “Yes,” gave him a perfect score. No Child Left offers no “options” for those with the test score Mark of Cain — no opportunities, no hope, no plan, no funding. Rather, it is the new social Darwinism, the marketplace jungle brought into the classroom. This is educational eugenics: Identify the nation’s loser class early on. Trap them, then train them cheap. Someone has to care for the privileged. No society can have winners without lots and lots of losers.
And so we have No Child Left Behind — to provide the new worker drones that will clean the toilets at the Yale Alumni Club, punch the cash registers color-coded for illiterates, and pamper the winner class on the higher floors of the new economic order.
Greg Palast is the author of Armed Madhouse out this week from Penguin Dutton, from which this is adapted.
Armed Madhouse: Who’s Afraid of Osama Wolf?, China Floats Bush Sinks, the Scheme to Steal ’08, No Child’s Behind Left and other Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Class War. Order it now.
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