During the final five minutes of my lecture in “Inequality and American Democracy” yesterday, a young law school student made a desperate plea for the students of the class to consider participating in the Teach for America program once they graduate from Yale. She described her experience with the program and the remarkable and positive difference college graduates can make in the educational opportunities of disadvantaged students. Her voice had a certain element of candid urgency to it, and she reminded all of us that education — a good education at a public school — is the great equalizer of opportunity for American children today.

Education is an integral part of the modern American dream and American democratic principles; it is this ideal of educational opportunity equality that promotes a vision of America as a place where success is dependent solely on education, merit and personal achievement, and not on family wealth, status or political contacts.

Indeed, President Bush has said that educating every child, regardless of his race or socioeconomic status, is the greatest moral challenge of our time. But, the whispered answers to this great moral challenge continue to be drowned out in the current political arena, inundated by the raucous debate of other pressing election-year issues, most notably the War on Terrorism and concerns about the state of the economy.

Lest we have forgotten, a landmark piece of legislation was created almost three years ago — The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) — to address the deficiencies and inequalities present in the American public school system. The NCLB is significant because it represented a new type of educational reform which addressed the fundamental questions as to why problems with math comprehension and literacy exist in public schools and targeted the development of a “culture of learning” among students. The reform did not simply throw money at the problem, but rather, it looked deeper at the problems of the educational system, including addressing how discrepancies between minority and non-minority academic performance can be rectified.

The NCLB was built on four pillars: accountability for results; an emphasis on research-based improvements; expanded parental options; and expanded local control and flexibility.

Accountability for academic performance consists of informing parents and community leaders of the performance of schools in their area. Student progress is measured via yearly, standardized state tests and shows educators what academic areas need strengthening. If schools do not meet mandated improvement goals, they receive extra resources and their leadership may be restructured.

Researched-based improvements correct the problem of schools using antiquated and unreliable teaching methods and standardize academic curricula across the board to ensure that all students receive the same high-quality education.

Parental options include the right of parents to remove their child from an underperforming school to another more successful school in the area, and if a school has failed to meet its improvement goal for three consecutive years, parents of disadvantaged students gain the right to supplemental educational services at the expense of the school district.

Flexibility allows local educators to determine on their own how to spend money to target specific community-based problems.

So, while the debates and caucuses rage onward, further discussion concerning the achievements (or lack thereof) of the NCLB remains muted. It is imperative that the public be made aware of the consequences of the NCLB and whether or not the aforementioned features of the program are really working for all students. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site, since Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, the federal government has spent more than $321 billion (in 2002 dollars) to help educate disadvantaged children. Yet nearly 40 years later, only 32 percent of fourth grade students can read at grade level. Additionally, most of the 68 percent who cannot are minority children or those who live in poverty. By taking a close look at the disappointing statistics reported by the Department of Education, though, one can clearly see that the public educational system of the 1990s has not only been failing disadvantaged children — it has really been failing all children. This is why analysis of the program’s successes and failures is so important to accomplish as soon as possible.

Educating our nation’s children is the most important investment in the future that we can make as citizens today. Traditionally a Democratic issue, education should be at the forefront of public discourse this primary season. Educating children to become intelligent and motivated individuals who are prepared to confront the challenges of the future — and doing so equitably for all children — truly is the greatest moral challenge of our time. The education level of American students is slowly but steadily falling behind in pace to those students in other developed democracies. The NCLB reform was groundbreaking in its ambition to correct this trend but is still in its early years. One can only hope that its positive effects will become evident as time goes on because in American democracy, quality education is tantamount to the hope for a successful life. The public must demand that no child be left behind.