Democrats Pledge: No Vouchers in NCLB

Published March 1, 2007

With Democratic majorities taking control of the U.S. Congress, in late January the new chairmen of the committees overseeing federal education programs vowed to block any moves to make voucher programs part of reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which is due for consideration in this Congress.

After meeting with President George W. Bush on January 23–before he delivered the State of the Union Address–Senate Education Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) called on him to embrace significant funding increases for NCLB.

On January 8, Bush met with congressional leaders to discuss the future of the Department of Education’s signature education reform law. While meeting with the new committee chairmen, Bush said the group “agreed to work together to address some of the major concerns that some people have on this piece of legislation, without weakening the essence of the bill, and get a piece of legislation done.”

Miller and Kennedy expressed a very different agenda.

“The No Child Left Behind Act has brought important changes to our public education system; for example, by shining a spotlight on the persistent achievement gap that exists among different groups of students in our country,” Miller said. “But if we are going to fulfill our original commitment to children and parents, then the law, its implementation, and its funding must be improved.”

Philosophical Differences

Kennedy outlined his “No Child Left Behind Improvement Act”–legislation not yet introduced at press time–which calls for new funding and new programs, including support for school construction and putting social workers in low-income public schools.

“We have an obligation to revisit the No Child Left Behind Act and ensure that it lives up to its promise,” Kennedy said. “We’re prepared to work with the president, and as a first step we urged him to send a message in this year’s budget that every child counts and deserves the benefits of our liberty. We will continue to fight for the resources we know are needed to fulfill this promise.”

Neal McCluskey, an education analyst at the Washington, DC-based Cato Institute, said increasing federal involvement in education is unlikely to succeed.

“Ever since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was enacted, it’s been clear Washington is utterly incapable of improving American education, no matter how much the feds spend or meddle,” McCluskey explained.

“Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed the winning political formula for education. Politicians get the most mileage out of the schools when they promise to ‘do more’ to improve them, no matter how impotent Washington has proven in the past,” McCluskey continued. “With that in mind, it’s hardly a surprise that Democrats want to expand NCLB, and it will be even less of a shock when their ‘help’ proves worthless.”

Democrat Divisions

Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute, a free-market organization in Phoenix, said differing statements from leading Democrats such as Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) highlight a potential divide within the party’s congressional caucus, which could have political implications throughout the entire Congress.

While Kennedy stated his intent to use the existing law as a foundation for future reforms, Reid signaled support for reform that would change the law’s accountability requirements, which he called “far too punitive.”

“Senator Reid’s call to remove the teeth from NCLB while increasing funding would leave the federal government as an undemanding sugar-daddy and leave American school children out in the cold,” Ladner said. “Kennedy will have a tricky road ahead as he deals with strong union opposition and tries to avoid awakening sleeping Republican federalist principles, while maintaining any serious reform credibility.”

Voucher Proposal

On January 23, Bush announced plans to include expanded school choice options in NCLB, including:

  • requiring underperforming schools to offer scholarships to low-income students, to allow them to transfer to the private or out-of-district public schools of their choice;
  • providing federal funds for school boards to expand local school choice options for low-income families; and
  • using federal funds to make sure schools inform parents about choice options in their communities in a timely manner.

Though NCLB contained private school options for students trapped in failing public schools when Bush first proposed it five years ago, the Republican-controlled Congress quickly stripped it out of the bill.

Determined Opposition

Clint Bolick, president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group based in Phoenix, praised the Bush initiatives.

“We hope that the bipartisan spirit our new congressional leaders have pledged will encompass efforts like these to rescue children in some of the worst schools in the nation,” Bolick said.

But Democrats said that was highly unlikely.

“[Vouchers] didn’t pass muster when Republicans controlled the Congress, and it certainly won’t pass muster now that Democrats do,” Miller told the Associated Press.

Dan Lips ([email protected]) is an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

For more information …

“Bush reintroduces school voucher plan,” by Nancy Zuckerbrod, the Associated Press, January 23, 2007,