As DC Vouchers Move Ahead, More Rumblings and Grumblings on NCLB

Published May 1, 2004

At a March 24 event, Washington DC Mayor Anthony Williams and U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige announced the selection of the Washington Scholarship Fund as the entity that would administer the new voucher program for the District of Columbia.

The DC Choice Incentive Project, approved by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush last year, is a five-year federally funded program to provide vouchers of up to $7,500 for approximately 2,000 low-income students in the District. With the vouchers, students will be able to attend the participating private school of their choice.

A grant also was awarded to undertake the first phase of the program evaluation, which will be conducted by Westat, working with Georgetown University researchers. As part of the grant, the team will assist in the lottery to assign scholarships randomly to eligible student applicants.

Paige Answers School Officials on NCLB

In a March 24 letter to Paige, 14 state school officers strongly criticized the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), proposing a major overhaul of the law’s accountability mechanisms. The officials represented Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Washington.

“We propose a set of broad guidelines that would at once address the need for statewide accountability and still accord states true flexibility in how they meet federal requirements,” the letter stated.

Congressional leaders who championed the law, including House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) and ranking Democrat George Miller (D-California), responded swiftly and with vigor.

“These changes would gut NCLB and make it easier for states to go back to hiding the fact that some children are being denied a quality education even as those states accept billions in increased federal funds,” Boehner told the New York Times.

“They are always sort of arriving but they never get there,” said Miller in the same Times article. “We want all of our fourth-grade children to be proficient in reading and math and other subjects.”

A few days before the letter from the school chiefs was released, a memo from Paige to editorial writers addressed recent criticisms of the law. The memo discussed how federal officials have made it a priority to communicate regularly with state leaders and to maximize flexibility when it comes to compliance.

“Some states decided to use more elements of flexibility than others, but, consistent with the principles of federalism and flexibility that characterize NCLB, each state presented a unique plan and rationale for that plan,” Paige explained.

The memo also pointed out that numerous analyses, including studies by the General Accounting Office and Harvard University researchers, had concluded Congress had allocated ample funds to implement the law’s testing and accountability requirements.

Special Order Promotes Choice

Two of Congress’s leading school choice advocates took to the House floor March 18 with a Special Order promoting the benefits of choice. Representative Pete Hoekstra (R-Michigan), chairman of the House Select Education Subcommittee, joined Representative Trent Franks (R-Arizona) to discuss choice in general and Franks’ federal tuition tax credit proposal, called the Children’s Hope Act.

“A tax credit would begin to bring a little bit of balance,” Hoekstra explained, “that says, ‘rather than putting more money into empowering bureaucrats, we are going to put some money into empowering parents and rebridging that gap between parents and local schools and their children.'”

Added Franks, “When we empower parents, we do good things for children. It is that beautifully simple.”

Reaction to Secretary’s Remarks Linger

In late February, the wave of criticism over Paige’s comparison of the National Education Association (NEA) to a “terrorist organization” continued to linger. Despite apologies from the Secretary, at least two organizations known for their criticism of the Bush administration launched online positions encouraging Paige’s ouster.

In a Washington Post column shortly after the remarks, Paige was clear to point out that the NEA leadership, not teachers, was his intended target.

“As ill-considered as my words were, my disappointment was directed only–and I mean only–at the union heads in Washington who have been opposing any and all educational reforms, no matter what the consequence to our children,” Paige said in that article.

A February 24 editorial by the Wall Street Journal suggested Paige’s frustration at the NEA’s hardball legislative tactics, “to preserve their monopoly on public education,” was not altogether unfounded.

“So far as the NEA is concerned,” the editorial went on to say, “the real outrage is the Bush administration’s attempt to introduce accountability in public education through the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].