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Educating George Bush

THE OPTIMIST can faintly hope that Margaret Spellings does not join the ghost of Christine Todd Whitman. Whitman was Bush's choice in his first term to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Bush said Whitman "is a chief executive who understands the importance of a clean and healthy environment and will ensure that environmental regulations are based on sound science."

Bush asked Whitman to be caretaker of an agency probusiness Republicans wished to eviscerate. As she put a prochoice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control face on environmental policy, Vice President Dick Cheney's far more powerful secret energy task force champed at the drill bit. Sound science did not last even two months.

Despite a memo in which Whitman told Bush, "We need to appear engaged" on global warming, Bush reversed his campaign pledge to cap carbon dioxide emissions and rejected the Kyoto global warming treaty. In 2002, the EPA reported that human activities were responsible for global warming. Bush trashed the news with sarcasm, saying, "I read the report put out by the bureaucracy."

The White House would go on to the ultimate step of deleting or altering parts of EPA reports that said industrial pollution and car exhaust play an undeniable role in global warming. Whitman quit quietly and loyally in the summer of 2003, saying only, "I've never been frustrated with the president's view."

Now, in a second administration where nominees are being rewarded for seamless, if not stifling, loyalty, Bush has nominated Spellings, an adviser on domestic policy who goes back to his days as Texas governor, to be the new education secretary.

She starts off with her own face of moderation, provided by the praise from the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy said Spellings is "a capable, principled leader who has the ear of the president and has earned strong, bipartisan respect in Congress."

If the tenure of Spellings is to mean anything, she must bend the ear of the president in the way teachers used to do to inattentive students. With Bush in office another four years, that means four more years of No Child Left Behind. Bush established it to reform America's public schools, saying he wanted to eliminate the soft bigotry of low expectations. The program has thus far been a sham of forcing educators to teach to tests while denying schools any meaningful resources to address learning gaps or escape failing schools.

As Bush has spent more than $1 trillion on tax cuts and two wars, funding for No Child Left Behind has been horribly paltry. Bush brags that he has budgeted $13.3 billion for the program. But the gap between what Bush asked for and what Congress can spend is estimated between $7 billion and $10 billion. One result is that Chicago last year allowed only 1,100 transfers among the 19,000 students who wanted to flee failing schools. The Chicago schools projected only 457 transfers this year among more than 270,000 students who would be eligible to transfer.

In a report this fall by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, teachers in Fresno, Calif., and Richmond, Va., said that they did not mind being held "accountable," but accountability without resources results in too high a level of turnover of both teachers and principals. Another well-known problem is how schools are having to drop everything from gym to Shakespeare to teach to tests. Such pressures are making legislators in many states, even in Utah where Bush just won 71 percent of the vote, to make noise about dropping out of the program.

Bush said in nominating Spellings that "we will continue to stand behind our nation's teachers." But he did not offer a grand defense of teachers after his outgoing education secretary, Rod Paige, labeled the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the United States, a "terrorist organization." When it came to a report on global warming from the EPA, Bush pooh-pooh the "bureaucracy." In No Child Left Behind, Bush's new bureaucracy has made teachers the scapegoat, asking them to jump over new hurdles on track shoes with the soles falling off.

In nominating Spellings, Bush said: "The stakes are too high to tolerate failure." When it was Spellings's turn to speak, she said to Bush: "I share your passion for education and your commitment to seeing that each and every child has the skills and qualities necessary to realize the American dream."

The only way the dream will be realized is if Spellings does something increasingly impossible in the Bush administration. She will have to show him a passion for education that drastically changes his commitment. As it is now, No Child Left Behind is a stake in the heart of public education guaranteeing failure. She will have to risk being a Christine Todd Whitman. She will have to risk becoming a ghost.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is 

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