The Bush Education Agenda: Then and Now
October 27, 2006
Five years can feel like a lifetime in politics, where momentum can be a stronger force than gravity. For the Bush Administration, five years invested in implementing and defending No Child Left Behind has created a sense of ownership over all aspects of a law that was the result of heavy negotiations. This was apparent in Education Secretary Margaret Spelling's recent comment that the law needs few changes in its reauthorization. But compared to the original education plan President Bush offered in 2001, the current No Child Left Behind falls short of the Administration's goals.
The Bush Administration unveiled its education reform plan shortly after Inauguration in 2001. (The Department of Education has an archive of the original 28-page proposal here.)
However, the No Child Left Behind legislation that President Bush signed into law in January 2002 looked very different from the proposal he submitted to Congress in 2001. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), among others, clearly made their mark on the legislation.
The President's plan was built on four pillars: strong accountability for results, research-proven methods, flexibility and local control, and parental choice. On flexibility and parental choice, NCLB bears little resemblance to the President's original proposal.
Bush's plan would have let low-income students attending poor-performing public schools use their share of Title I funding as a scholarship to attend private school. This would have been a significant expansion of parental choice.
But Congress stripped out the private school choice component early in the legislative process. At the signing ceremony in 2002, a weakened public school transfer option and a modest after-school tutoring program were all that remained of the President's broad choice proposals.
After nearly five years, NCLB's modest school choice provisions are helping few children. According to the Department of Education, only 1 percent of the 3.9 million students who are eligible actually participated in public school choice in the 2003-2004 school year. Only 17 percent of eligible students took advantage of the after-school tutoring option.
As with school choice, Congress also scrapped the Bush Administration's proposal to give states and school districts greater flexibility and control. The President's proposal would have created a "charter state" option for "states and districts committed to accountability and reform." This would have allowed participating states and districts to enter into five-year agreements with the Secretary of Education to free them from certain program requirements while still holding schools accountable for performance. After Congress finished its work, all that was left was a modest provision to grant states and school districts limited flexibility in transferring funds between existing federal programs.
Last week, President Bush said that reauthorization of No Child Left Behind will be a "top priority" for his Administration. He signaled that restoring some part of the private school choice component would be one objective of reauthorization. Unfortunately, President Bush didn't mention among his priorities a charter state option and restored state and local control.
In 2007 and beyond, a charter state option will be more feasible, politically, than a national voucher proposal, and it would be better policy. Support for restoring state and local control has grown across the political spectrum under NCLB. Governors and state lawmakers who have criticized the federal government's heavy hand in education should be attracted to the idea of a charter state option.
The charter state idea ties into school choice, too. School choice backers like President Bush should recognize that shifting power back to the state and local levels would open the door to expanded parental choice in education. State and local school choice efforts have proven more successful than the limited choice that No Child Left Behind allows.
Reauthorization will give President Bush a second chance to reform federal education policy. The Administration should start by taking a step back from today's No Child Left Behind and remembering the principles it hoped to advance in the first place.