Policy changes in the Better Education for Students and Teachers Act (S. 1) and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (H.R. 1) fall far short of President George W. Bush's education reform package, No Child Left Behind. The President's plan sought to transform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) into a results-oriented system. The bills reauthorizing the ESEA and now headed for conference committee contain only some of the elements of the Bush plan. While the House bill would be a limited, albeit costly, improvement over current law, the Senate bill poses an enormous cost without foreseeable benefits. Grafting minor changes onto old, unsuccessful programs and buttressing them with a massive increase in funding is not likely to reach the goal: to raise academic achievement.
Given the crisis in education, especially for disadvantaged children, these bills provide too little reform where the need is greatest. A stunning 60 percent of underprivileged 4th graders still cannot read at a basic level, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This has been the case for decades, despite the billions spent by the federal government since 1965 to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students.
Although national and international achievement test scores demand a profound shift from the status quo, the bills' policy changes will be profound only in their cost to the taxpayer. S. 1 nearly doubles authorized spending for existing programs in the first year and quadruples spending by 2008.
The President's Five-Star Plan.
The President wisely sought to break with the past. His plan for the ESEA reauthorization emphasizes accountability, flexibility, opportunity, structural change, and quality improvements. Summing up his strategy, he stated during his campaign that
What I am proposing today is a fresh start for the federal role in education.... Freedom in exchange for achievement. Latitude in return for results.... [M]y second goal for the federal government is to increase the options and influence of parents.... The theory is simple. Public funds must be spent on things that work--on helping children, not sustaining failing schools that refuse to change.
While S. 1 and H.R. 1 contain some needed modifications, the most powerful engines of reform--accountability to parents, choice, flexibility, and structural change--are watered down or eliminated. The bills substantially increase funding for the same old, ineffective programs. Congress took a bold five-star plan and weakened it.
- Instead of increasing opportunity
and making schools accountable to parents by giving children in
failing and unsafe schools the option to attend a successful public
or private school, the legislation merely provides state-approved
supplemental services and more intra-district choice. And some
children will be denied even this.
- Instead of making structural
changes to focus funds on a limited number of high-priority
categories, the legislation continues to fund an array of highly
specified programs, many of which are ineffective or
- To strengthen accountability, the
legislation requires states to raise achievement and stipulates
either sanctions or rewards for results. The bills do not, however,
make schools more accountable to parents by giving them sufficient
options to help their children receive the best education. Without
the choice to act, standards, tests, and reports are just pieces of
- To increase flexibility, the bills
offer some new options but retain many of the ESEA's burdensome
regulations and paperwork requirements. They also fail to authorize
charitable choice for after-school and drug and violence prevention
- To begin improving quality, the legislation, primarily in the House, does include some programmatic improvements; but both bills continue to direct funding to unsuccessful programs.
H.R. 1 contains some accountability regulations, some flexibility, and several of the President's recommended programmatic improvements. However, it fails to make structural changes in ESEA or provide children in failing schools with choices beyond intra-district school choice and tutoring. Compared with the President's "Five Star" plan, H.R. 1 merits two and a half stars.
With a few exceptions, the Senate bill is devoid of reform. It is an expensive and expansive version of current law. During the legislative debate, the bidding war to drive up spending actually made a bad bill worse. The inclusion of the President's Charter States and Districts proposal and some accountability provisions earn it a single star.
The potential of the final bill that emerges from the conference committee can be measured by the degree to which it resembles the Bush plan rather than current law. If improvements are not made in conference, the cost of this legislation will be far greater than its price tag of some $400 billion over six years. The cost to children in failing schools who could have been helped will be incalculable.
What Conferees Should Do.
Though the President appears pleased that Congress agreed with some of his reforms, he should still insist that conferees strengthen the reform components of the legislation before it comes to his desk. They should eliminate extraneous programs and regulations, reduce paperwork burdens, and, above all, give children in failing schools a real opportunity to attend a good school.
As the President's No Child Left Behind plan explains, "The federal role in education is not to serve the system. It is to serve the children." Whether the reauthorization of the ESEA will, in fact, serve America's children is the question. With this paramount goal in mind, if real accountability, flexibility, consolidation, and opportunity for poor children are not strengthened in conference, the President should veto the bill and send Congress "back to school" to get it right.
Krista Kafer is Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.