Just three days into his administration, President George W. Bush kept his campaign promise to stress academic results above all in elementary and secondary education.
As part of the plan he submitted to Congress, Bush said if federally aided schools failed to raise the achievement of poor children for three consecutive years, then their Title I funds should become $1,500 stipends the children could carry with them to better-performing public or private schools, or to other providers of educational services.
Bush’s new U.S. Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, established a similar accountability system as superintendent of the Houston public schools, where he used charter schools and a limited venture with vouchers, largely intended to relieve overcrowding.
Although Bush’s modest step toward portability of education funding fell well short of being a true voucher program, the “v” word quickly became the center of controversy in media accounts and the focus of heated opposition to the Bush plan.
Despite this, the new President’s meetings with lawmakers of both parties seeking a bipartisan approach appeared to be paying off. Key Democrats embraced elements of the Bush plan, though not the one envisioning a choice of private schools for children trapped in repeatedly failing public schools.
The Bush administration has sent conflicting signals as to whether it will go to the mat for parental choice stipends, or abandon them in negotiations with Capitol Hill.
“He will fight for that provision,” insisted press secretary Ari Fleischer. But a day earlier, Bush chief of staff Andrew Card had said “vouchers won’t be the top priority of this administration.”
In any event, the quibbling about vouchers obscured the fact that the Bush plan contains many other fundamental reforms of how Washington aids K-12 education. Here are some of the key changes he has proposed:
Annual testing and reports
This is the heart of the Bush approach. It would require states to test pupils in math and reading annually in grades 3-8. States would use tests of their own choosing, but state results would be cross-checked with annual samplings of fourth and eighth graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The data would give parents vital information on how their children are progressing academically and would help in diagnosing and correcting student weaknesses. Persistently failing schools would be subject to corrective actions.
No longer would the federal government subsidize bilingual programs that keep Limited English Proficient children indefinitely in classes taught in their non-English native languages. Instead, schools would be held accountable for making these English learners more proficient in English skills each year, so that after three years they would be taught entirely in English.
Federal aid for such targeted purposes as reduction of class size would instead be bundled into grants giving states more flexibility to upgrade teacher prowess, but also holding them accountable for doing so. For instance, states and local districts could reform archaic certification requirements, provide alternatives to the education school route to teaching careers, reform tenure, and implement merit pay.
In addition, 1 percent of federal funding would be set aside for grants to states that develop methods of measuring teachers’ performance according to gains in their students’ achievement–the so-called “value-added” approach developed by University of Tennessee statistician William L. Sanders. (See “Helping Teachers Raise Student Achievement,” School Reform News, November 1999.)
The plan puts heavy emphasis on learning to read early–not simply by setting a national goal of every child being able to read by the end of the third grade, but by funneling federal aid into “science-based” reading instruction.
Although the federal government cannot prescribe curriculum, this reform clearly anticipates that existing research will guide localities to turn to phonemic awareness and phonics in reading instruction and away from the discredited Whole Language approach.
Besides the limited use of vouchers, the Bush proposal also would expand federal start-up help for charter schools, increase use of K-12 education savings accounts, establish national experiments with innovative choice programs, and consolidate categorical programs into block grants that localities could use for choice programs.
This proposal creates a new option for states to enter charter agreements with the Secretary of Education wherein they receive freedom from federal red tape, in exchange for agreeing to be subject to strict accountability for increased student achievement over a five-year period.
Math and science
The plan would enable states to team up with colleges and universities to form partnerships to strengthen K-12 math and science instruction. As a group, U.S. students have not performed well on international tests of achievement in math and science. (See “U.S. Students Trounced in International Science Match,” School Reform News, February 2001.)
The Bush plan also addresses education technology, school safety, and impact aid for children of military dependents and American Indians. All these initiatives will go into the administration’s recommendations for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was stalled in Congress last year by election-year politics.
Because the Bush plan shares points in common with a centrist proposal championed by Democratic Senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Evan Bayh of Indiana, Capitol Hill leaders were optimistic that bipartisan consensus can be reached on the federal government’s limited role in education reform.
Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].