Fine-Tune NCLB, or Go Boldly for Choice?

Published March 1, 2005

As President George W. Bush began his second term, education policy-makers were wondering whether he would spend some of his political capital on further expanding school choice or instead invest it wholly on extending the testing regimen of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into the nation’s high schools.

During his first term, Bush used federal power and his bully pulpit to advance parental choice more than any previous president had done.

The president championed a pilot program of vouchers to enable children in some of Washington, DC’s worst public schools to transfer to private schools; backed Education Savings Account tax breaks for families saving for children’s K-12 tuition; and pushed for NCLB-mandated public school choice or free tutoring for children stuck in low-performing schools.

In his second Inaugural Address, on January 20, Bush vowed to “bring the highest standards to our schools and build an ownership society.”

Emphasis on Standards

However, Bush’s early emphasis since the election appeared to be more on toughening standards than on stressing ways for families to take ownership of their schools through choice. At a pre-Inaugural talk at a public high school in northern Virginia, the president unveiled a proposed $1.5 billion initiative to beef up reading and math standards in high schools.

Bush told J.E.B. Stuart High School students, teachers, and staff his initiative would enable high school teachers to analyze test data and determine which ninth-graders were at risk of falling too far behind to graduate. To ensure the intervention is successful, Bush said, he wants to test ninth-, 10th-, and 11th-grade students in reading and math, as NCLB now requires in grades 3-8.

“Listen, I’ve heard every excuse in the book not to test,” Bush commented. “My answer is, how do you know if a child is learning if you don’t test? We’ve got money in the budget to help the states implement the tests. There should be no excuse saying, well, it’s an unfunded mandate. Forget it–it will be funded.”

Positive Trade-Off

Nevertheless, expanding NCLB-required testing will not be an easy sell on the political left or the right. Teacher unions continue to attack testing as part of their strategy of opposing greater accountability and NCLB in particular.

Several state legislatures, some of them Republican-controlled, also have balked at current federal requirements, threatening to pull out of NCLB and forfeit federal aid or to seek exemption from testing.

For education reformers leery of increased government involvement, NCLB’s boosting of choice could be seen as a positive trade-off.

As Bush told his Stuart High audience, “Accountability systems don’t work unless there are consequences. And so in the No Child Left Behind Act, if a school fails to make progress, parents have options. They can send their child to free after-school tutoring, or they can send their child to a different public school.”

Districts Thwarting Choice

Unfortunately, the public school choice option remains more of a promise than a reality. In December, a 55-page General Accounting Office (GAO) report found less than 1 percent of students eligible under NLCB to transfer to better-performing public schools actually did so.

The GAO said thousands of students were denied choice because their districts determined there was no space for them, even though federal education officials had said claims of limited capacity could not be used to deny students choice. The GAO also found many local school bureaucracies failed to inform parents of their educational options until after a school year had begun.

Bush’s original blueprint had a far more robust choice mechanism: converting NCLB aid to school systems into vouchers enabling students in deficient public schools to select private schools. However, prominent members of Congress from both parties insisted the voucher provisions be eliminated at the start of NCLB deliberations early in 2001.

Reluctant to Fight

Early signs are that the Bush administration currently values bipartisan support for NCLB over a tough fight for vouchers.

The president’s choice for second-term Secretary of Education–Margaret Spellings, longtime Bush policy advisor and fellow Texan–sailed to confirmation in the Senate on a voice vote on Inauguration Day. She and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, former governor of Nebraska, were the first two new Cabinet members to be confirmed.

Spellings, formerly a chief lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards, receives high marks from many for her education savvy. She was one of the main architects of No Child Left Behind, which is based on the reform model that emerged during Bush’s Texas governorship. It features higher academic standards and increased standardized testing of student achievement.

At her confirmation hearings, Spellings pledged to pay close attention to concerns of public educators as well as parents and reformers. She received particularly high praise from key Democrats.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), one of the staunchest foes of vouchers, concluded Spellings “has the knowledge, the commitment, and the leadership to improve the quality of education across the land.”

Still, it is possible the Bush administration will work to expand vouchers outside the framework of No Child Left Behind–for example, by using the first-ever federally funded voucher program in Washington, DC as a model for spreading pilot voucher projects to other major cities.

The DC program is providing scholarships of up to $7,500 per child per year. In the current school year, more than 1,000 students are using the vouchers to attend schools of their parents’ choice.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.