IMAGINE THIS: A progressive Democrat is elected president. In his early days in office he articulates his belief that America owes all of its citizens a quality education, and that long after Brown v. Board of Education this promise is still denied to far too many poor children, particularly children of color. He declares this ''achievement gap'' to be a national disgrace, saying that it is unacceptable that the average African-American and Latino child is doing in 12th grade what the average white child is doing in 8th grade.
The new president, with the active support of Senator Ted Kennedy, passes a law that puts the power of the federal government behind his vision for our schools, dramatically expanding its reach into public education. The law requires that all states adopt standards for what children need to know and assessments to determine whether all children, in all demographic groups, are meeting these standards, with real consequences for schools that fail to make adequate progress toward closing the achievement gap. Under the new law, states are required to allow parents with children in failing schools to transfer their child to a higher performing traditional public school or public charter school.
For progressives this should be seen as a dream scenario, a declaration that closing the achievement gap is the great civil rights enterprise of our time. Of course, you could be sure that conservatives would rage against this radical intrusion by the federal government into territory long reserved for state and local authorities. But you could also be sure that liberal activists and their allies in public education would staunchly defend the legislation's ambitious, egalitarian goals.
In fact, just such a momentous law has been passed and is now being implemented. But as painful as it is for me, a progressive Democrat, to acknowledge, it was a conservative Republican president who passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), and it is traditionally Democratic education groups and activists who decry the law as intrusive federal meddling. And true to the confusing and peculiar politics of education reform, instead of embracing the laudable goals of NCLB-and joining in a bipartisan effort to repair its flaws-the institutional players in education and their allies have put their energy into fighting it.
To veterans of the education wars at the state level, this peculiar political situation comes as no surprise. In state battles over reforming schools, liberal and conservative labels have lost their meaning. Instead, the battle lines are drawn between those who are willing to take on powerful institutional interests and contemplate systemic change and those who are not.
In Massachusetts we have seen this peculiar political situation play out in the contentious battles around implementing our own version of ''standards-based reform,'' the Education Reform Act of 1993 (which I coauthored). Passed in response to a crisis in public education, the theory behind Massachusetts' law is that if you give school districts a more equitable funding base, establish state standards for student achievement, monitor districts' progress through student testing, and empower school leaders by enacting significant management reforms-such as removing principals from collective bargaining-districts will figure out how to improve.
Many liberals and education associations bitterly fought the management reforms as well as the essential testing component of this strategy, MCAS, in both the state house and in federal and state courtrooms. Many continue the fight to this day, despite the fact that 10 years of standard-based reform has produced considerable progress. Massachusetts schools are now at the top in national comparisons, and despite dire predictions of mass failure 96 percent of seniors passed the high school MCAS requirement and now graduate with a high school diploma that actually means something.
Last week, in its decision in the Hancock case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected the plaintiffs' request-supported by the teachers' unions and other institutional groups representing various educational interests-that the court order the state to send more money to underperforming districts. Other groups, such as the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (which I manage), are proposing a more comprehensive strategy which includes raising our expectations for student performance through a statewide ''campaign for proficiency,'' additional management reforms, and targeted new expenditures for expanding state assistance to school districts, early childhood education, and extended time on learning through a longer school day. Still arguing that money is all that is needed, and lacking any systemic reform agenda of their own, the institutional interests will continue to oppose changes in the system that will empower school leaders to tackle the many dysfunctions of underperforming schools.
For those of us who see ourselves as progressives, the debate about failing urban schools was far more comfortable when it was all about funding-and the liberal and conservative battle lines were drawn in a traditional manner. Fueled by Jonathan Kozol's scathing indictments of spending inequities in his 1991 book ''Savage Inequalities,'' progressives fought in legislatures and courtrooms for state funding formulas that would put schools in poor cities and towns on an equal footing with those in more affluent ones.
And in Massachusetts, one of the five highest-spending states in the country, we have been successful. In terms of equity, studies such as one by the Education Trust show that after 10 years of the 1993 Act's new funding formula, Massachusetts now spends slightly more to educate the average poor child than the more advantaged one, making it difficult to argue that the troubles of our lowest performing districts are primarily about funding. For example, over the last decade, Brockton's per pupil expenditure has increased 111 percent, from approximately $4,000 to over $8,500 per pupil, with only modest gains in student achievement. So do we really believe that an additional, let's say, $1,000 per pupil is likely to result in significant improvement?
Yes, money matters, and the spending inequities of the past were a disgrace. But once a certain level of spending has been reached, school improvement is far more about how money is spent.
Still, after 10 years of increased spending and reform, and despite real progress, the achievement gap in Massachusetts remains very large. Urban schools in particular are failing too many of their students, and while Massachusetts schools do very well compared to other states, they are not meeting international standards, particularly in math and science.
More reforms and higher state standards are necessary because school systems have shown that, like most large institutions, they have little ability to change on their own. (As Dick Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education puts it, ''Watching schools change is not like watching grass grow; it is like watching Astroturf grow.'') This is so despite the fact that educators at all levels-superintendents, principals, and teachers-express enormous frustration with how their jobs are structured and with the barriers to effective practice created by outdated management policies and inflexible collective bargaining agreements.
It is time to examine the reform model that we have pursued in Massachusetts for what works and what doesn't. One significant problem is that there are no consequences for schools or districts that fail to make sufficient progress, despite having received significant new funding.
NCLB attempts to solve this problem by allowing students in failing schools to choose another public school, charter or traditional. But this approach will only work if there are schools within a reasonable distance that offer a better alternative. NCLB anticipates that many of these alternative schools will be public charter schools. But in Massachusetts, despite the fact that many urban charter schools have significantly improved student achievement and have over 14,000 students on their wait lists, we have caps on charter schools, especially in large urban communities. These caps should be lifted: They function like protective tariffs and are only in place because of the aggressive advocacy of the institutional groups and their allies. And unlike traditional public schools, charters do get shut down for poor performance. Indeed, charters that are not making the grade should be shut down even faster than they are now.
Improving schools is hard work. Educating all our students to a reasonable standard is a monumental undertaking. Our current system has not shown that it is up to the task. Since we have rightly decided that this is essential work, we must be willing to look creatively for different ways of organizing both schools and school districts.
Robert Reich has noted that today's young people are the first generation in 100 years not to witness the power and passion of American liberalism. To rekindle that passion, progressives must be willing to take on established interest groups and offer solutions that challenge the status quo, extend opportunity, and embrace change and reform.
NCLB sets the right goals for America's schools. Instead of fighting it, Massachusetts progressives and education leaders should work to show that we have the ingenuity and determination to be the first state to close the achievement gap. For we should all be able to agree that educating every child to a reasonable standard is indeed the great civil rights enterprise of our time.
Mark Roosevelt is the managing director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. He served in the Massachusetts Legislature from 1986-94 and was coauthor of the Education Reform Act of 1993.