Bush Budget Calls for Private School Scholarships

Published March 1, 2006

Private school “Opportunity Scholarships” and beefed-up math and science instruction to spur American economic competitiveness are two key education proposals in President George W. Bush’s budget for the new fiscal year beginning in October.

The FY2007 budget, released February 6, contains a $100 million item to offer eligible parents the option of using either $4,000 private school scholarships or $3,000 worth of intensive tutoring for their children when they are in public schools found “in need of improvement” under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for six years or longer.

U.S. Department of Education officials said students enrolled in as many as 2,000 chronically underperforming public schools across the country could be eligible for the new offering this school year. The vouchers would go to low-income families under guidelines similar to those for the federal voucher project in Washington, DC.

“The president’s Opportunity Scholarships could be a breakthrough for school choice,” noted Heritage Foundation education analyst Dan Lips. “The initiative could benefit tens of thousands of children across the nation and help build a constituency for school choice reforms. It will be up to Congress to carry this initiative forward. This sets the stage for an important debate over school choice on Capitol Hill.”

Global Economy

Bush proposed private vouchers in the first draft of NCLB early in 2001, but dropped the proposal after congressional leaders objected. Along with public school choice, private tutoring became available through NCLB to children in chronically failing schools. The new proposal makes the tutoring grants more extensive.

In proposing an American Competitiveness Initiative in his 2006 State of the Union Address, Bush acknowledged U.S. schools need to do a far better job of encouraging children to take rigorous science and math courses that will prepare them to succeed as workers in the global economy.

International studies have shown American students tend to fall further behind those from other developed countries in math and science as they move into secondary school. By high school, many U.S. students are still taking refresher arithmetic and introductory science courses, while students in other nations are delving into physics, chemistry, geometry, and calculus.

Proposing to build on NCLB, the president called for $380 million in new federal support that would (among other things) train 70,000 high school teachers to conduct advanced-placement math and science classes, recruit 30,000 math and science professionals to become adjunct high school teachers, and help elementary and middle-school students struggling with math.

Higher Standards

NCLB requires states to test children for proficiency in math and reading in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school, according to yardsticks adopted by each state. It does not require testing in science. At the start of his second term, Bush proposed expanding NCLB accountability more extensively into high schools, but that idea encountered stiff resistance in Congress, even from Republicans who supported NCLB’s passage in 2001.

With NCLB up for reauthorization in 2007, the president’s call for raising the bar in science and math education is likely to provoke lively debate about how to do it.

“NCLB creates perverse incentives for states to set low standards and dumb down their tests,” said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and former Bush administration education department official. “This is already happening in reading and math.

“According to our foundation’s research, only three states–California, Massachusetts, and New Mexico–have both rigorous math standards and passing scores on their eighth-grade math tests that are anywhere near the national ‘gold standard’ of proficiency,” Petrilli said. “Forty-seven states have weak math standards, low passing scores, or both.

“If the president wants to get serious about math and science education,” according to Petrilli, “he should call for national standards and tests rather than leaving these essential pieces to the whims of the 50 states.”

Limited Government

The effectiveness, not to mention constitutionality, of centralizing control over K-12 education is in serious question for those who believe in the power of the marketplace and the rightness of leaving decisions close to home.

“President Bush is concerned about losing our competitive edge to India and China, two countries that have finally begun to grasp the power of market competition,” observed Cato Institute education policy analyst Neal McCluskey. “Ironically, he wants to solve the problem by exerting more centralized control over education, and his solution isn’t the worst. Some people are clamoring for national education standards, a certain path to complete federal domination of our schools.

“It seems not only haven’t a lot of Americans learned math and science as well as our competitors, they also haven’t learned the lessons of history,” said McCluskey.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.