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Closing the Door on Our Kids

Spring 2005

By Wayne Au


Illustration: Gale

I was rummaging through a desk drawer the other day and came across an old Polaroid picture from two former students. The handwritten caption on it read, "Unsuspected picture to Wayne. Remember us. Beto n' Vangie."

The shot is of Beto, clad in a white t-shirt, backwards black baseball cap, and sagging jeans, and Vangie with teased-up bangs sporting a black-and-silver L.A. Kings jacket. They are hugging each other in front of the dorms at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

This picture makes me happy because it reminds me of why I became a teacher to begin with—to work with students like Beto and Vangie. Their note also strikes an especially emotional chord with me because of the seriousness of their demand: Remember us.

I remember Beto vividly. He was one of those kids who walked that perilously fine line: always on the fringes of gang and drug activities, but also culturally centered and part of a vibrant Northwest Native-American community. Beto was sharp, quick-witted, intelligent, and street savvy. In one moment he could be a fire-eyed fighter, and in the next moment he could be a warm-hearted goof. I loved him even if he periodically drove me crazy with his hardheadedness.

Beto and I first crossed paths through the Upward Bound program at Evergreen. He grew up on a Native-American reservation outside of Tacoma, Wash., and I was working with Upward Bound as a tutor/counselor. To me, Beto was Upward Bound. A working-class kid who would be the first generation in his family to attend college, he represented what the program was about: giving kids like Beto a shot at a better life. That's why I loved working in the program and did so for eight years.

In late January 2005 the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the Bush administration was proposing to cut Upward Bound and its middle-school counterpart, Talent Search, from the fiscal year 2006 budget. True to the Chronicle's account, on Feb. 7 the U.S Department of Education (DOE) posted its proposed budget online. Its website, www.ed.gov, includes a section entitled "Programs for Elimination." The DOE does not mince words regarding its decision. The language reads, "The 2006 request continues the practice of the Bush Administration of proposing to eliminate or consolidate funding for programs that have achieved their original purpose, that duplicate other programs, that may be carried out with flexible State formula grant funds, or that involve activities that are better or more appropriately supported through State, local, or private resources." The website lists 48 "programs for elimination." Upward Bound and Talent Search are among those proposed to be laid to rest, for a federal savings of $312.6 and $144.9 million, respectively.

Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Support Services are referred to as federal TRIO programs. Upward Bound started under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. The other two programs soon followed in 1965 and 1968. All three of the TRIO programs were developed to help low-income, first-generation college students get through high school and into college. According to the DOE's own reports, in 2001, Upward Bound served more than 68,000 students, 45 percent of whom were African American, 25 percent of whom were white, 19 percent of whom were Latino, and 79 percent of whom were considered to be from low-income households. In the 10 years from 1993 to 2003, the DOE estimates that Upward Bound served an average of 50,000 students each year.

In my heart of hearts I am absolutely sure that both Upward Bound programs I worked for were effective. At Upward Bound we provided individual tutoring, personal counseling, technology training, literacy development, SAT preparation, mentoring, and other intangible assistance to our kids and their communities. The director of an Upward Bound program I used to work for had been a participant in the very same Upward Bound program she was directing. We helped kids go to college, plain and simple.

The irony of potentially cutting Upward Bound and Talent Search programs lies in the rhetoric of the Bush administration itself, which claims that it wants to close achievement gaps and help poor, working-class students of color gain increased access to education. Even the DOE budget press release headline reads, "President's FY 2006 Budget Focuses Resources on Students Who Need Them the Most." Upward Bound and Talent Search are two programs that target the exact students that Bush and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act supposedly want to help. Cutting them would mean focusing resources away from those who need them most.

Upward Bound and Talent Search are only some of the good programs the Bush administration has placed on the chopping block. The DOE proposes cutting the following programs (all dollars are in millions):

And this is just a partial list. There are other proposed cuts as well, ones that seem particularly paradoxical in the wake of the NCLB's stated commitment to quality education. For instance, even with all the focus on developing and maintaining a qualified teacher in every classroom, the administration wants to cut "Teacher Quality Enhance-ment" monies to save $68.3 million.

Just for perspective, I compared some of these proposed program cuts to the federal budget request for weapons systems for fiscal year 2006. I found that the $94.5 million saved by cutting Smaller Learning Communities programs will just about pay for exactly one of the 38 requested F/A-18 jet fighters. Cutting GearUp will almost pay for a single C-17 Transport Aircraft, and the combined cuts of Upward Bound, Talent Search, Even Start, and Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (a little over $1 billion total) will buy a little less than one half of a federally requested SSN-774 "Virginia" Attack Submarine. I could go on, but I'll stop before my head explodes.

The DOE says many of the proposed cuts are because the programs are redundant with existing or new programs. So Teacher Quality Enhance-ment, School Dropout Prevention, and Alcohol Abuse and Reduction programs, for instance, will supposedly now be taken care of by existing NCLB programs and grants. The feds have deemed others, like Upward Bound, Talent Search, GearUp, and the National Writing project as "ineffective" or only "partially effective," so they too will go.

The Bush administration clearly thinks too much money is being spent on education programs, particularly those that target low-income students and students of color. Even worse, they think NCLB funding is supposed to make up for the loss of these programs.

Once again, educators are being told that we have to do more with less. This message is especially harrowing considering the June 2004 report by the Center on Education Policy that found that NCLB Title I programs aimed at low-income students are only serving about 60 percent of eligible children. The report went on to add that, "The current Title I appropriation of about $12.3 billion is only half of the approximately $24.7 billion it would cost to serve all children counted under the Title I basic formula using the law's own expenditure factors." The proposed program cuts, combined with current educational under-funding, represent a continuation of the Bush agenda of slashing-and-burning public education.

Does the Bush Administration's proposed 2006 budget really speak to educational equality in our country? Absolutely not. And once again we are left with the empty promises of NCLB.

I fear that without programs like Upward Bound, the Betos and Vangies in this country won't have opportunities to go to college. But, if the opportunities are not there, where will they go? Just because the Bush administration expresses absolutely no tangible commitment to helping these students, it doesn't mean they vanish into thin air.

Perhaps that is the ultimate tragedy of a callous education policy like NCLB: No matter how ridiculous the legislation is and how little money is spent, the kids will still be standing there, like Beto and Vangie, demanding to be remembered.

Wayne Au (wayne.wk.au@gmail.com) is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a Rethinking Schools editor.

Spring 2005