Choice Fades on Capitol Hill

Published July 1, 2001

As Congress got to work on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) just before Memorial Day, it appeared President George W. Bush would get his wish, expressed just after taking office, for “bipartisan” education reform legislation.

But to make that wish come true, the administration has paid a price some critics of the federal presence in public education deemed too high.

Key Elements Gone

Two major casualties in committee actions on the ESEA bill, H.R. 1, were:

  • The voucher provision, which would have allowed a family with a child enrolled in a chronically failing public school to use up to $1,500 of its Title I subsidy to pay tuition at a private school; and
  • The Straight A’s block grants, which would have permitted seven states and 25 school districts to spend their federal aid as they saw fit, in exchange for an agreement with the U.S. Secretary of Education that their schools would produce significant gains in achievement.


With those changes, H.R. 1 won the approval of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce by a 41-7 vote, with six Republicans and only one Democrat dissenting.

The principal element of the Bush plan surviving committee and House floor votes was a federally mandated system of testing all pupils in grades 3 through 8 every year in reading and mathematics. States could develop their own tests, but the results would have to be confirmed by a “second snapshot” provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or a professionally recognized test of the state’s choosing. If NAEP were the confirming measure, states would have to show progress on either the fourth or eighth grade assessment.

Points of strong contention over how tests would be administered and interpreted, and how a school’s failure would be defined, remain. The final details may not be known until a House-Senate conference committee reaches agreement and President Bush signs the bill.

Spending Gets a Boost

Meanwhile, the Bush administration wooed Democratic liberals like Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking minority members on the education committees, by agreeing to boost federal education spending.

The House sought $24 billion in spending through the ESEA, a 29 percent increase. Senate Democrats wanted even more . . . despite the failure of some $150 billion in ESEA spending over the past 35 years to produce much by way of documented results.

“The bill is not perfect,” said Miller. “But I think this bill, in its current form, represents a major step forward.”

Overall, the U.S. Department of Education would receive a 22 percent budget increase, double what Bush had proposed. New Secretary of Education Rod Paige has vowed to tighten fiscal management at the department, where recent audits have exposed an inability to account for $450 million of spending over the past three years.

Conservatives Wage Floor Battle

The stripping of parental choice and block grants from the 987-page “No Child Left Behind” bill provoked the ire of six conservative Republicans in the House, who led a fight to restore the provisions in floor votes: Bob Schaffer (Colorado), Pete Hoekstra (Michigan), Jim DeMint (South Carolina), Tom Tancredo (Colorado), Mark Souder (Indiana), and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina).

Schaffer, founder of a charter school in Colorado, commented that “the President came out with a good idea predicated on an ambitious balance of accountability, dramatic flexibility being devolved to the states, and parental choice so kids could option out of the public school monopoly. That balance has been ruined.”

More than 50 citizens’ activist groups–among them, Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the National Taxpayers Union–declared their opposition to the Bush bill after it had been substantially amended.

After the defeat of parental choice, Hoekstra, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Select Education, formed a conservative/liberal coalition in an attempt to eliminate the federally mandated testing. The proposal failed by a vote of 255-173. Hoekstra argued that school superintendents were not looking for yet another set of marching orders from Washington, and that the federal government’s role “ought to be to audit the results, not to mandate.”

John Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, opposed Hoekstra’s proposal, saying “regular testing ensures that states and local schools are held accountable to parents, and it’s the centerpiece of President Bush’s education reform plan. This amendment would have struck at the very heart of the President’s accountability proposal.”

Silver Lining for Reform

Some school choice advocates saw silver linings in what remained of the original Bush reform blueprint.

Analysts at the Institute for Justice, which is defending voucher recipients in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Florida, noted “the White House was able to secure agreement that children in failing schools can use their funds for private supplemental services, including religious providers. Given that Title I portability has never previously done well in Congress, this is a significant step forward.”

Under the remaining accountability provisions, children in failing schools would be able to transfer to better-performing public schools right away. After three years, schools still failing would be required to offer families the option of private tutoring or after-school remedial programs. With yet another year of failure, the schools would have to reorganize as public charter schools or bring in new leadership and teachers.

Several measures to promote choice via tax credits and demonstration voucher programs also were in the works, and the White House had indicated its support. The legislation contains reforms of bilingual education intended to ensure that children limited in their English proficiency are not left to languish indefinitely in non-English native-language instruction.

In addition, a Reading First provision will direct funds to schools that use proven methods of reading instruction, based on scientific research. In practical terms, this means more use of phonics. (See accompanying article, “Bush: Teaching Children to Read Is Job 1.”)

Asking Too Much?

Veteran education analyst Myron Lieberman, a supporter of a competitive education industry, reminded disappointed reformers that under the decentralized American system, shaping K-12 education is not among a President’s basic duties.

“It is unrealistic,” Lieberman wrote in a column for the Education Policy Institute, “to think that a President, who is responsible for national security, foreign policy, and leadership on health care and social security, should regard education, a service for which the federal government contributes only 7 percent of the funding, as his highest priority.”

Still, many conservatives find the dismissal of spending flexibility for the states and choice reforms for families particularly difficult to swallow when federal education spending is being increased so dramatically.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].