The U.S. House of Representatives on July 20 renewed funding for President Bush’s school voucher program for public school students in the District of Columbia. Shortly before the vote, Democrats withdrew an amendment to redirect $4 million from the voucher program to the DC Public Schools.
The bill, which passed with a strong 371-54 majority–and with remarkable speed in a presidential election year–now proceeds for consideration by the Senate.
“The fact is, the District of Columbia has one of the most troubled public school systems in the United States,” observed one of the plan’s authors, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Virginia). “Charter schools and transformational schools are popular and important educational alternatives. But there are simply not enough places in these schools to meet student and parent demand.”
The D.C. School Choice Act gives parents additional educational options for their children, explained Davis. “It gives them a shot at a better life, the same shot we all want for our children.”
Teacher Unions Blast NCLB
Both major national teacher unions held their annual conventions in Washington, DC this July, and both used them largely as forums to take shots at the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which elected former Rhode Island AFL-CIO President Edward J. McElroy to succeed Sandra Feldman as its president, attacked the centerpiece of Bush’s education plan with vigor. Singling out the law’s definitions of “highly qualified teachers,” public school choice, and supplemental education services as serious flaws, AFT leaders also stressed the need for “appropriate funding” for the law.
But it is the law’s system of accountability for academic results that has received the brunt of the unions’ ire.
“The problem is not that many schools and districts are failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress; ineffective schools should be identified,” stated an AFT position paper distributed at the convention. “The problem is that many of these so-called failing schools and districts are being identified more for statistical than education reasons.”
In a significant development, National Education Association (NEA) leaders announced a new partnership with the anti-Bush activist group MoveOn.org to challenge the 2002 law. They encouraged members to host house parties in late September to oppose the NCLB law’s provisions for “mandating high-stakes testing, forcing teachers to teach to a test, and wasting money on paperwork and bureaucracy.”
Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) addressed the AFT convention in person, while he spoke to NEA leadership and delegates by videoconference.
Study Documents Reading Decline
It is no great revelation that Americans read fewer books than they did 20 years ago, but the findings of a National Endowment for the Arts study released in July will raise eyebrows.
Less than half of American adults currently read literature, according to the study, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. That represents an overall decline of 10 percentage points from levels of 20 years ago. The trend is most acute in recent years: The rate of decline tripled over the most recent decade, and especially among 18-24-year-olds, the youngest age group studied.
The report was developed from an analysis of Census Bureau data from 1982-2002 for a population of 17,000 adults. The study showed the most popular types of literature were novels and short stories, which were read by 45 percent of respondents in the past year.
The study also examined correlations between literary reading and other activities, and it was little surprise that less frequent reading went hand-in-hand with more frequent television viewing. For example, adults who do not watch television every day are 48 percent more likely to be frequent readers, i.e., read between 12 and 49 books every 12 months.
Endowment Chairman Dana Gioia, an award-winning poet and essayist, admitted he was most surprised by the rate of decline. Noting modern electronic media offer unparalleled immediacy, access, and diversity, Gioia described the acceleration of reading trends as dire.
“Print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible,” he said. “To lose such intellectual capability–and the many sorts of human continuity it allows–would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.”
Don Soifer ([email protected]) is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
For more information …
The National Endowment for the Arts study is available online at http://www.nea.gov/pub/ReadingAtRisk.pdf.