PONTIAC — Two days after accepting his position as superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, Bert Bleke learned that 20 of the district’s schools would be pegged as failing under the No Child Left Behind guidelines.
“I think that is all nonsense,” Bleke said. “America loves scorecards and the easier the scorecard the better. No Child Left Behind and the notion of failing schools gives us accountability and I have no problem with that, but how we judge schools to be failing is so completely unfair and nonsensical it’s hard to believe.”
For Bleke and school administrators across the nation, some of the burden of that test may soon be lifted.
Yesterday, a diverse network of school districts, the National Education Association (NEA) and several state education associations filed a lawsuit, Pontiac School District v. Spellings, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. It was unveiled at simultaneous news conferences in Laredo, Texas; Pontiac; and Washington, D.C.
“Today we’re standing up for children, whose parents are saying, ‘No more’ to costly federal regulations that drain money from classrooms and spend it on paperwork, bureaucracy and big testing companies,” said NEA President Reg Weaver in a prepared statement. “The principle of the law is simple; if you regulate, you have to pay.”
The plaintiffs represent several school districts in Vermont, Texas and Michigan, as well as the nation’s largest teachers organization. These groups say they are filing the suit because the Bush Administration has not heeded its own demands of accountability, which states: “Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the federal government to mandate, direct, or control a state, local education agency, or school’s curriculum, program of instruction, or allocation of state or local resources, or mandate a state or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act.”
Since the law’s enactment in 2002, there has been a $27 billion funding shortfall in what Congress was supposed to provide schools to meet the law’s regulations and what has been funded. Cost studies in Ohio and Texas estimate that the price of the regulations to state taxpayers could run as high as $1.5 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively.
While the crux of the suit is the law’s ill-funding, Bleke dislikes the metric as a whole.
“Could we do better? Absolutely. But are we failing? No. As a matter of fact, I think we add more value to the children that attend our schools than any other school system in this county.”
Bleke compared a GRPS student to one of its peers at East Grand Rapids or Forest Hills. At the neighboring districts, a student comes into kindergarten with a vocabulary of 6,000 words, a supportive family, and sometimes a library at home that is larger than that of the school.
“They do well in school,” Bleke said. “But the question becomes, ‘What value did the school add to them?’”
At GRPS, 78 percent of students live in poverty, 14 percent are in special education, and thousands don’t speak English at home.
“They came into the system at a whole different level. We take those kids and add a tremendous amount to them. Yet if they don’t pass a test according to the government standards, they failed.”