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Does President Bush Really Mean to Leave No Child Behind?

During his presidential campaign, President Bush repeatedly promised to "Leave No Child Behind," using the Children's Defense Fund's trademarked mission statement. He and members of his Cabinet continue to use these words, or close variations of them, in their speeches and written materials and on their Web sites. By adopting CDF's mission, President Bush has set the standard for the nation and for his presidency.

In his inaugural address, President Bush said, "America, at its best, is compassionate. In the quiet of America's conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault."

Sadly, the president's actions have not matched his words.

The president has said that education is his highest priority yet that is not reflected in his budget. For every $1 he has proposed to invest in education, he has proposed to invest at least $40 in a tax cut that will leave millions of children behind and widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

The president's $1.35 trillion-tax plan would provide 45 percent of its benefits to the richest 1 percent of families (those with incomes of $373,000 or more) and less than 1 percent to the poorest. This plan leaves behind 3 million African American families and 3 million Latino families. It will not help these children one iota.

The president's tax-cut plan proposes to double the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000, and lift the ceiling of those eligible for the credit from those with taxable income of $110,000 to $200,000. It does not propose, however, to make the credit fully refundable, thereby leaving behind 16 million children in the lowest income families who do not pay federal income tax but who do pay payroll and other taxes. If the child tax credit is made fully refundable, 2 million children could be lifted out of poverty, 1.8 million could be lifted out of extreme poverty, and 16 million in moderate- and low-income families could be helped.

In America today, there are more than 12 million children -- 1 in 6 -- living in poverty (78 percent of them live in working families). There are nearly 11 million children without health insurance. There are about 7 million children left home alone after school every week with no positive, structured after-school programs to participate in. There are 3 million children living in very poor quality housing. Only 12 percent of those eligible get child care assistance because there isn't enough federal funding.

The Bush budget does not adequately respond to these urgent child needs in this time of surplus. Instead, it:

  • Shifts $200 million from child care for young children to child care for older children when both programs are underfunded -- a budgetary shell game that fails to meet pressing parental needs for quality affordable child care for both younger and older children.
  • Cuts $20 million from the Early Learning Trust Fund which helps children get ready for school while increasing military spending by $14 billion.
  • Cuts support for training programs for pediatricians and other hospital staff who reach out to families and help them receive needed health care coverage.
  • Leaves thousands of low-income young children without the opportunity to participate in Head Start and abandons the Clinton administration's plan to ensure 1 million children a Head Start by fiscal year 2002.

The litmus test for caring is what is done not just what is said. Children are not fed or housed or educated by words. I hope the citizens of this nation will insist that poor children's needs take precedence over massive new tax cuts for the wealthy. So far, Leave No Child Behind has been a rhetorical fig leaf for unjust budget priorities that leave millions of children behind. Now is the time to urge President Bush and Congress to be fair to all children by making the child tax credit refundable.

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Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children's Defense Fund.

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