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Published on Sunday, December 31, 2000 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Use Surplus To Invest In Kids, Now
by Paul Wellstone
My friend Jonathan Kozol, who has written powerfully about poor children and education in America, asked me to visit P.S. 30, a New York elementary school, in the South Bronx. Not one of the children came from a home with more than a $10,000 annual income (some American families spend this much on one vacation), 30 percent of the children suffer from asthma, and for almost all of them English is a second language. Yet Ms. Rosa, the 63-year-old principal, would not give up on these children, nor would the teachers I met there. There were a lot of heroes and saints at this school.

The same can be said about Bancroft Elementary in Minneapolis and many other Minnesota schools I've visited over the past 10 years. I'd be surprised if the principal at Bancroft puts in fewer than 70 hours a week for the children. The teachers are on a mission to nurture, teach and help little children, many of whom don't have it easy. And the children -- you should see them -- are all beautiful, reflecting the full diversity and richness of our future Minnesota.

But you don't get this picture from Minnesota's report on "lagging" schools. Why the disconnect? What is the problem?

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), states are required to annually review the progress of schools receiving Title I funding for low-income children and to publicize and disseminate the results. The good idea is that we need to know how all of our children are doing in school, that no one should be allowed to sweep serious problems and challenges under the rug. Low-income or minority students should not be held to low standards and given an inferior education. There must be accountability.

The problem is that Minnesota has used a single standardized test for assessment. This is a profound mistake, with serious consequences.

All of the research on testing calls for multiple methods of assessment. Joe Nathan and Nicola Johnson at the Center for School Change have just issued a timely study, "What Should We Do? A practical guide to assessment and accountability in schools." They describe many successful models using a variety of means to assess student achievement that provide a broader and more accurate picture of what students know.

The consequences of the Minnesota school-performance report could be harsh. Parents, especially middle-class parents with more options, may pull their children from "failing" schools. Principals, teachers and support staff could become demoralized. Some will leave. I think many creative teachers, if forced to teach to standardized tests that become the definition of success, will leave the profession.

And the children? How are they helped with labels like "losing," "lagging" and "struggling" -- all this based on dubious assessment?

Who will help the children, teachers and schools? Let's be honest about it. Some of the harshest critics couldn't last one hour in the classrooms they condemn. Accountability doesn't stop at the school door. What about policymakers, who persistently refuse to provide the educational resources necessary to guarantee an equal opportunity for children to learn? What about our own failure to invest in their future and their achievement?

I was in a Senate debate that was quite instructive. Two senators, a Democrat and a Republican, introduced an amendment that mandated children must be held back a grade if they could not pass the necessary test or tests. I introduced an amendment to their amendment that said their provisions could not apply to any child who had not had proper early childhood education, had not had access to Title I, special education and bilingual educators they deserved, and had not been taught by a fully qualified teacher.

One of the senators said the amendment was a deal-breaker because there were many uncertified, underqualified teachers in her state. No one could have made my point better.

The most important tool is early childhood development. Evidence on the development of the brain is irrefutable. We must make sure that in the very early years every child has a nurturing, supportive, intellectually stimulating environment. We must get it right for these children so they all can come to kindergarten ready to learn. This is the key to their, and our, success.

Yet early Head Start helps only 2 percent of children age from birth to age 2, 27 percent of eligible 3-year-olds, and 48 percent of eligible 4-year-olds. There is not adequate funding. The Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) helps barely 10 percent of low-income families that are eligible. Many moderate-and middle-income families also face the challenge of finding good, affordable care.

If President-elect George W. Bush is successful in passing a $1.3 trillion tax cut, precious little of our surplus will go to children. If we are not for our children now, in this time of surplus, when will we be?

The Minnesota Early Child Care and Education Finance Commission is a bipartisan group chaired by Bob Caddy and Don Fraser. Their recent report on how to improve the lives of children and give them the best chance at success in school should be required reading for all policymakers, for all Minnesotans. It is a comprehensive approach that gives more power and resources to parents to raise their children, increases the quality of early care and education and integrates early care and education to make sure Minnesota's children will be kindergarten-ready. We must heed their conclusion that a universal effort to better care for children under 5 is not optional. It is critical.

The cost is $480.7 million. We are not going to achieve this on a tin-cup budget. This goal certainly cannot be achieved if most of the state government surplus goes to tax rebates and if we as a community refuse to make this investment.

We should help these children when they are little, not because if we do they are less likely to get into trouble, although that is true. Not because they are more likely to graduate and contribute to the economy, although that is also true. We should invest in them, in the very early years, because they are all under 4 feet tall, they are beautiful and we should be nice to them!

We are at a crossroads. This is a community, value and spiritual question for our nation, for Minnesota. Unless we make this commitment we will continue to see low test scores, continue to see children dropping out, children acting out and children failing because we did not do all we could to help them succeed. Instead of doing what we know will work and instead of taking responsibility as policymakers to invest in improving students' lives, we place the responsibility squarely on children and their schools. It is simply negligent to expect that the poorest children, who face every disadvantage, will be able to do as well as those who have every advantage. When we do this, we hold children and their teachers responsible for our inaction. We confuse our failure with theirs.

All of us in politics like to get our picture taken with children. We never miss a photo op. We all like to say that children are our future, but when it comes down to making the investment we come up a dollar short. This is symbolic politics at its worst. Unless we put more money where our mouths are, too many children will continue to fail.

The U.S. Supreme Court was correct nearly 50 years ago in expressing doubts that "a child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if ... denied the opportunity of education." To obtain success in the 21st century, all our students must have a good education. This begins with high expectations and standards for all. But we must provide the resources to reach this goal.

This is much more than a debate about tests. It is time for us to promise equal opportunity for every child in America. If not now, when?

Paul Wellstone, Democrat, represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.

© Copyright 2000 Star Tribune


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