04/18/2007 04:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011


"But the little secret here may be that the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) recognized by its sponsors. Constant reference to a "war on terror" did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of policies they want to pursue."

So wrote Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Washington Post March 25, 2007. Sound familiar? Try substituting "competitiveness in the global economy" for "war on terror" and no meaning is lost. The only difference is that demagogues have tried to scare us about our public schools for over 50 years now. It started before Sputnik, but that little orb kicked the criticism into high gear, even if the criticism was stupid, and it was. The Russians beat America into space largely because no one paid sufficient attention to Goddard until it was too late; because the military saw rockets as weapons, not as tools of space exploration and because the three branches of the military squabbled like a dysfunctional family and even on occasion sabotaged each other (with words, not bombs). The Nazi scientists we had absconded with after WWII got behind the Nazi scientists the Russians had absconded with after WWII because of the internecine warfare. Eisenhower's proposal for NASA, a civilian organization to coordinate space efforts, arrived six months after Sputnik's launch.

Although NCLB is increasingly (and falsely) justified as a civil rights issue, the arguments for it in the beginning--and still to a certain extent--were that we needed it to compete with the Chinese and Indians just as 20 years earlier we needed the recommendations in A Nation At Risk in keeping the Japanese wolf from the door (incidentally, an AP story last week pointed out that India has run out of qualified high-tech workers. I thought that was supposed to be our problem). It sustains a culture of fear about public schools.

The Bush Bunch has been taking a lot of flak lately on NCLB so Dubya gathered a group to hear the complaints. Susan Zelman, Ohio's Superintendent for Public Instruction might qualify as the only educator in the room and might have been invited as compensation for the Supreme Court's having beat up on her in the Cleveland voucher case. Here's a list of who's advising Bush on NCLB these days, as indicated by that meeting:

Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education

Lauren Maddox, Assistant Secretary (journalist by trade; PR flack, in other words)

Jeanne Allen, CEO of Center for Education Reform (uber-zealot for vouchers and charters)

Craig Barrett, Chairman of the Board, Intel (and chronic whiner about the schools)

John Castellani, President, Business Roundtable (the BRT has been the most chronic whiner of them all)

Tom Donohue, President and CEO, U. S. Chamber of Commerce (whose recent joint effort with the Center for American Progress was trashed here earlier)

Tom Luce III, CEO, National Math and Science Initiative (former Assistant Secretary)

Shelia Evans-Tranumn, Associate Commissioner of Education, New York

Janet Murguia, President and CEO of La Raza (Murguia and Tranumn are the token minorities in the room).

Ed Rust Jr., President and CEO State Farm Mutual (and why? Because his daddy was and his granddaddy before him; also previous, maybe current head of the Business Roundtable's education task force).

Art Ryan, Chairman and CEO, Prudential Financial

Paul Vallas, CEO, School District of Philadelphia

An article by one of two reporters permitted in the room (open government?) said there was "unified agreement" on reauthorization and that the group mentioned "international competitiveness and social justice" as rationales.

Washington Post editor Ruth Marcus recently (April 4) wrote "Fox-in-the-Henhouse Government:" "The tornado of disastrous headlines--Pentagon can't take proper care of its' wounded, a Justice Department that can't be trusted to follow the law or tell the truth to Congress, a top White House aide who lied to a grand jury--has been so overpowering that the day-to-day outrages of life in the Bush administration tend to get overlooked." She then lists many outrages that were barely noticed.

Add to this Paul Krugman's revelation that televangelist Pat Robertson brags he has 150 graduates from his Regents University in the Bush administration, then blend in the usual suspects listed above and remember that Margaret Spellings' very first act as Secretary of Education was to ban an episode of "Postcards from Buster" because it incidentally showed Lesbian families. If you're an administrator, teacher, parent or kid, you can find reason to be scared, very scared.