During the 2004 presidential campaign, education ranked far behind terrorism, war, and the economy among voter concerns. Nevertheless, President George W. Bush often touted his signature accomplishment in K-12 education: the standards-demanding No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).
Bush’s opponent, Democrat Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, echoed calls by the largest teacher union, the National Education Association (NEA), for substantial loosening of NCLB academic requirements for schools receiving federal Title I aid. Kerry also said he would fund NCLB at increased levels.
Now, bolstered by his re-election victory with a clear majority of the vote, Bush will seek to do more than stay the course with NCLB. Education could return to the Bush administration’s front burner.
The president has made clear that in his second term he wants to extend NCLB accountability into the public high schools. The current version of NCLB, which passed with bipartisan support in Bush’s first year in office, requires states to test students’ reading and math skills annually in grades 3-8 and prescribes remedies, such as public school choice and private tutoring, when schools persistently fail to make progress.
Bush wants to boost funding for low-performing high schools, but with the stipulation that the schools show results. His plan calls on states to develop annual tests for high school students, to include graduation examinations. (See related article, “Too Many Graduates Not Ready for Work or College,” page 4.)
National and international assessments have consistently documented a serious slump in achievement as U.S. students leave elementary school and enter secondary school. The goal of the Bush initiative would be to ensure that students depart high school prepared to go to college or to enter the workforce with marketable skills.
Any expansion of federally mandated testing is likely to be controversial with some conservatives as well as liberals, so approval of the Bush agenda is no sure thing.
While the NEA and other foes of NCLB have assailed “one-size-fits-all” accountability, the Department of Education under Bush’s education secretary, Rod Paige, has issued a number of rule changes to give states and localities greater flexibility over such matters as testing students who are labeled as disabled.
While there may be an effort to weaken the “adequate yearly progress” NCLB requires of schools, Bush’s strengthened Republican majority in the House and Senate may enable him to prevent crippling changes. (See “As New Bush Term Begins, Call for Changes to NCLB,” page 5.)
Private School Vouchers
While congressional Democratic leaders insisted that Bush strip private vouchers from NCLB before they would support it, the addition of new school choice allies in Congress may embolden the president to try to restore that transfer option.
At a minimum, Bush should be in a stronger position to protect the fledgling federal voucher program for up to 2,000 poor children in the District of Columbia. Moreover, Bush could try to expand federal voucher pilots to other cities with large concentrations of disadvantaged children, especially where public schools have offered few transfer options to children in underperforming schools. He also could advocate federal tuition tax credits.
With the Higher Education Act up for reauthorization next year, Bush is expected to push for funding increases for the collegiate version of vouchers: Pell Grants.
A School Reformer
Dating from his years as governor of Texas, Bush has a track record as a school reformer. Federal spending for K-12 education has increased 49 percent since Bush became president.
Regardless of whether Paige serves as education secretary for a second term, Bush is expected to work through entities like the Office of Innovation and Improvement to keep local officials abreast of promising reforms from across the country. He will likely continue to advance such causes as using methods grounded in valid scientific research (such as phonics to teach reading) and alternative teacher certification to bring bright, experienced newcomers into teaching.
Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.