Remembering Who Opposed President Clinton's
By Evan Feinberg and Dan Lips
Before No Child Left Behind, President Clinton had his own plan
for education reform. While it is not surprising that many
Republicans opposed the Clinton plan, what is striking are the
similarities between the Clinton plan and the (often)
Republican-backed No Child Left Behind.
In 1999, President Clinton unveiled his education reform
strategy in his State of the Union Address. He called on Congress
to use federal funding to spur school reforms and "to support what
works, and to stop supporting what doesn't work."
Texas Governor George W. Bush was sharply critical. "The federal
government should be a limited partner, not a general partner," he
explained. "If they feel like sending money back to the states,
fine. But don't tell us how to run things."
It is funny how times change. Reviewing the Clinton plan, one
can't help but notice similarities to No Child Left Behind, a
centerpiece of President Bush's domestic policy.
President Clinton's plan called on Congress to attach five
"strings" to federal education dollars. First, states would be
required end social promotion. Second, states and school districts
would be required to reform or close low-performing schools. Third,
they must establish teacher qualification requirements. Fourth,
parents must be given greater information in the form of
district-issued school report cards. Fifth, states and school
districts would be required to implement school discipline
Congress didn't enact President Clinton's education strategy
during his administration, but its spirit lived on.
Consider how core elements of No Child Left Behind resemble
President Clinton's proposal. NCLB was meant to combat "the soft
bigotry of low expectations" by ending the practice of
automatically passing kids to the next grade. NCLB also defines a
"highly-qualified teacher." The law mandates different school
reforms for each additional year a school is deemed low-performing,
including restructuring or closing schools after five years of
failure. Moreover, NCLB requires states to test all students
annually and to publish student performance data to provide greater
information to parents.
President Bush's original proposal for No Child Left Behind did
include some conservative ideas-like trimming bureaucracy,
providing state flexibility, and promoting private school
choice-but these provisions didn't survive congressional
negotiations with Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative
George Miller (D-CA). What emerged was a law that has increased
spending by 41 percent, expanded federal authority and bureaucracy,
and created 7 million hours per year worth of new regulations and
paperwork for state and local authorities.
The Bush Administration has taken full ownership of No Child
Left Behind. Last summer, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings
said it was "like Ivory soap…99 percent pure."
President Bush has made reauthorizing the law a top priority of his
But Republicans should remember that they-and George W.
Bush-once opposed expanding federal power in education-when it was
being proposed by President Clinton. Back in the 1990s,
conservatives on Capitol Hill fought to limit federal intervention
and to return authority to state leaders to create a reform
environment that minimized bureaucracy and fostered real
In the 1990s, Republicans supported the "Academic Achievement
for All Act" (commonly called "Straight A's) which would have
allowed states to enter into performance agreements with the
federal government that would give them the opportunity to
consolidate federal programs and redirect funding toward state
initiatives to improve student learning. In exchange, states would
establish performance objectives and administer state tests to
measure student achievement.
The Straight A's bill drew the support of 128 co-sponsors in the
House of Representatives and 20 in the Senate. Florida Governor Jeb
Bush testified in favor of the bill, asking Congress to "Imagine
what our states could do if we could spend more of our time and
energy working to improve student achievement, rather than
tediously complying with a dizzying array of federal rules." A
pilot version of the bill passed the House of Representatives by a
vote of 215 to 213.
President Bush incorporated the Straight A's approach in his original for No Child Left Behind. The White House recommended
creating a "charter option" to give states and school districts
freedom from federal regulations and bureaucracy if they entered
into a performance agreement with the Department of Education, but
it was whittled down by Congress into a weak funding transfer
In 2007, conservatives on Capitol Hill have proposed legislation
that follows the original Straight A's approach and the "charter"
option. Senators Jim DeMint (R-DC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) have
proposed the A-PLUS Act, which would allow states to opt-out of
NCLB and enter into performance agreements with the federal
government. Their plan would give states freedom from federal
bureaucracy and red tape if they agree to establish academic goals
and maintain a consistent, transparent testing system over time to
determine whether students are learning. So far, the Bush
Administration has been silent on the DeMint-Cornyn plan.
President Bush was right when he said that the federal
government should be a "limited partner, not a general partner" in
education. The time has come for him and Republicans in Congress to
return to their principles on education reform, rather than
continuing to champion Bill Clinton's education strategy.
Evan Feinberg is Domestic Policy Research Assistant
and Dan Lips is Education
Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.