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Humor Not Left Behind in Attacks on Bush Law

Times Staff Writer

The cartoon posted on the California Teachers. Assn. website shows two teachers in front of a chalkboard that reads “No Child Left Behind Mandate.” Their students are jumping through Hula-Hoops. One teacher remarks: “Look class, I’m not crazy about this either.” The other says: “But what really frosts me is we have to pay for the hoops.”

Prompted by a growing backlash from educators and legislators, the national school reform law keeps landing in a funny spot: as the butt of jokes.

No Child Left Behind has strong supporters inside and outside the Bush administration who say it brings much-needed accountability and standards to the classroom with new requirements for student testing and teacher training. But its critics disparagingly call it No Child Un-maligned, No School Budget Left for the Mind, No Child Behind Left. There are parodies: No Cow Left Behind, No Football Player Left Behind.

Puns, satire and cartoons have swept the Internet and television, drawing chuckles from educators. There’s a “No Child Left Behind Blues” album, and jokes on late-night comedy shows: “Due to budget crunches, Bush has had to scale back some of the programs,” said David Letterman. “He has a new program, ‘Leave a Couple of Kids Behind.’ ”

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For some educators, frustration over the law is no laughing matter. More than 20 states are asking for waivers from some of the law’s rules, changes in its details or more money to fund its various mandates.

Still, amid the controversy, some educators say they are glad to get comic relief.

“No Child Left Behind is a joke,” said Sandra Jackson, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Assn. The cartoon on the statewide teachers union’s website, by Mike Keefe of the Denver Post, “accurately represents what most teachers are feeling” about it: “the lack of freedom they have in actually working with and teaching students,” she said.

Joyce McGreevy, a humor columnist for Salon.com, has also tackled No Child Left Behind. “What’s not to make fun of?” she asked.

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She wrote, tongue in cheek, that to comply with the law, teachers across America have agreed to practice “the three Rs: rigid, rigorous and rabid testing.”

In 2002, Congress approved the law, which was hailed as a major domestic policy accomplishment for President Bush. It requires schools to hire “highly qualified teachers” who are fully credentialed or on their way. It also requires schools to make “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests. Schools that do not improve their scores must let students transfer to better schools and may lose funding or be closed. Principals and teachers can be penalized for low scores.

Scott Stanzel, deputy press secretary for the Bush reelection campaign, said satires of No Child Left Behind did not pose a threat to the president’s popularity or the law’s success.

“People who are opposed to significant reforms in education may be criticizing the law that challenges the status quo,” he said. “But in the end, the millions of parents whose children are getting a better education because of the No Child Left Behind law will certainly be more powerful than people who may be sharing jokes or cartoons.”

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Still, the spinoffs continue.

In Vermont, a stressed-out elementary school principal, Kenneth Remsen, conceived a dairy parody one morning while jogging. Wouldn’t it be amusing, he thought, to mock the federal education law, using cows?

Test all cows -- brown, white or spotted -- on milking abilities at age 2, he thought. Require a “highly qualified” farmer in each barn. Threaten with state take-over of a failing farm if test scores didn’t improve.

Out of these musings, Remsen wrote “No Cow Left Behind.” His local newspaper published the satirical essay. Soon it swept the Internet, and Remsen got hundreds of grateful e-mails.

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“There was just a lot of frustration among educators with the legislation,” he said. “People appreciated the humor.”

The San Bernardino County superintendent of schools’ office picked up the piece after Assistant Supt. Francisca Sanchez saw it and posted it on the office’s website. The office does not endorse the view, she said, but people who read it “recognize the satire and the dilemmas it underscores. After all, behind any successful satire is some truth.”

Ann Crigler, a USC professor who studies the media and politics, said comedy -- whether late-night skits or Internet satire -- shapes public opinion, especially among younger audiences. The twist here, she said, is that educators are driving their message with comedy.

“Typically, teachers unions are not engaging in humor,” she said. “They’re lobbying and mobilizing public opinion. This is a different tactic.”

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The National Education Assn., which represents 2.7 million educators, collects No Child Left Behind-related cartoons published in the media, spokesman Daniel Kaufman said.

One political cartoon depicts the law as a “one size fits all” straitjacket; another shows a school bus racing away from a sack labeled “Funding.”

“Sometimes it’s nice just to get a good laugh out of them, even though the situation is serious,” Kaufman said. “It allows us to let off some steam.”

The Bentinel, a satirical website, ran a fake news article saying the president “mistakenly wrote ‘No Child Left Behind’ instead of the intended ‘No Left Child Behind.’ The act’s original intent was to offset the added difficulties of left-handedness with additional, specialized instruction.... This adjustment in understanding helps to explain why the states are up in arms over the costs of the act.”

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In Colorado, a group of teachers who moonlight as comedic actors perform songs from a recently released CD, “No Child Left Behind Blues.” In one song, they sing:

I’ve got a special ed kid

who can barely say hi.

Another speaks Haitian

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and another only Thai.

Both of them must take a test

they can’t comprehend.

How in the heck is this

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supposed to help in the end?

My district can’t afford to

pay for books that it needs;

it can’t afford to fix the

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phones or copy machines.

I got the blues, the No Child

Left Behind Blues....

“Pointing out some of the silliness of this law might help,” said lyricist Cheryl Thurston, an educator who distributes the CD through her publishing company, Cottonwood Press. “We can bellyache about it all we want, because nothing is going to change. But when people start laughing at it because it’s so silly, then I think change is much more likely to take place.”

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