April 23, 2001 | Backgrounder on Education
President George W. Bush has presented an ambitious plan to improve American education and boost student achievement in a comprehensive education proposal, No Child Left Behind.1 Regrettably, however, the U.S. Senate committee that has jurisdiction over federal educational policy does not share the President's strategy for improving American education through accountability, flexibility, and choice. Indeed, under the Senate committee's proposal, many American children will continue to be left behind.
The Better Education for Students and Teachers Act (S. 1) was reported out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee by unanimous vote on March 8, 2001. S. 1, which resembles current law far more than it does the Bush reform plan, will not go far enough to improve the federal education system, which is characterized by its many duplicative and ineffective federal programs.
The full Senate can improve upon the work of its education committee and make a serious contribution to the effort to reform the current system. It can do this by ensuring that the final bill establishes real standards for measuring academic achievement, streamlines federal education programs, promotes local flexibility, encourages and protects good teachers, and gives parents of students who are trapped in failing schools the opportunity to seek a better education for their children.
THE PRESIDENT'S PLAN TO BOOST
President Bush's No Child Left Behind plan offers Congress a framework for transforming the federal role in education. The federal government currently spends roughly $120 billion each year on hundreds of education programs without requiring real proof that these dollars are making a difference. Recipients of federal funds spend significant time and effort meeting complicated formula and application guidelines but do not have to show that the children in their programs are learning or doing any better for having participated in those programs.
Billions of dollars have been spent on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Title I program for disadvantaged students over the past 35 years, but the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers has not been closed. As the recently released results of the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) on reading show, the reading scores of 4th grade students basically have shown no improvement since 1992 and reading scores among children the most at risk of illiteracy have declined.2
To improve public education, President Bush wants Congress to enact a series of reforms aimed at shifting the focus of federal education policy from paperwork and red tape to results. Such a program would ensure that "those responsible are given greatest latitude and support" while being "held accountable for producing results."3 To accomplish this, the President's plan demands that states demonstrate student academic gains in reading, math, and English fluency, as well as progress in reducing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers, and would tie consequences to results.
The President's plan also would reduce bureaucracy by consolidating duplicative programs and focusing dollars on a smaller number of performance-based categories: improving the academic performance of disadvantaged children, promoting literacy, increasing teacher quality, boosting English fluency, improving math and science education, enhancing technology, and strengthening school safety. To boost achievement, No Child Left Behind would empower low-income parents to have more control over their children's education, protect teachers from frivolous lawsuits, and emphasize proven methods of learning.
HOW S. 1 FLUNKS THE REFORM TEST
The Senate education bill reported out of committee simply fails to meet the mark on several crucial issues facing parents and children.
Little Improved Accountability.
President Bush's plan demands accountability for federal dollars. In exchange for the use of federal education dollars, states would have to set clear, measurable goals and implement annual state tests to ensure that all students are achieving. States that succeed in boosting academic achievement would be rewarded, and those that fail would be penalized. The states would have to design their own assessments to test reading and math in 3rd through 8th grades. The only requirement would be that the tests would have to be comparable from year to year so that parents and policymakers can know whether students actually are improving.
While incorporating some of these ideas, however, S. 1 also contains a significant loophole: It requires only "a system of high-quality, yearly student assessments."4 To satisfy the requirement, a state could use a hodgepodge of tests of varying lengths, content, scales, and scoring procedures, as many states do now. The tests yield different results, so exact equivalency cannot be established.
This is not the most accurate way to gauge how a state or its schools are serving students. Even if all the tests are aligned to the state's standards and concordance tables show some correlation, equivalency is still not possible. For example, if state standards require the teaching of algebra during 7th grade and schools use different algebra tests, the state must develop a concordance to show how the grades on the different algebra tests compare.
Because there is no provision in S. 1 requiring that tests be comparable from year to year, it will be difficult to determine academic improvements over time. If a student takes one kind of test one year and a different type of test the next, what the child has learned over the year is not readily apparent. Tests that are linked provide information about yearly improvements, the value added by particular programs and instruction techniques, what skills the child needs to focus on to improve, and what types of changes are needed to improve the system.
Lack of Choice.
No Child Left Behind promotes the use of test results to empower parents to choose schools that best meet their children's needs. In the President's plan, parents of children stuck in persistently failing or unsafe schools could take their federal dollars and use them to attend another public or private school of choice. Under the plan, a failing school is one that has not demonstrated adequate yearly progress among its disadvantaged students after three years. Unsafe schools are those defined by the state as "persistently dangerous."
S. 1, however, provides such choice in name only. Public school choice would be authorized unless prohibited by state, local, and school board laws. Only in areas where school choice is allowed would children in failing schools have the opportunity to transfer to another public school and receive transportation. Private school choice for disadvantaged children in failing schools is not an option. Although the bill includes a 10-page, $50 million Parental Involvement and Accountability program, which provides grants to organizations and school districts to promote involvement and cooperation between parents and educators, true accountability, involvement, and empowerment are largely absent.
Building on Old Education Programs.
Rather than inventing a "program for every problem," an approach that in the past led to the creation of hundreds of federal education programs, the
President's plan would streamline federal programming. It calls for consolidating overlapping and duplicative categorical programs into flexible funding streams that focus on a smaller number
of education priorities. The Senate committee bill, by contrast, would reauthorize most of the old
categorical programs and add a few new ones.
S. 1 contains most of the old programs consolidated under the President's plan. It stipulates 47 separate appropriation levels. A Democrat alternative, the Public Education Reinvestment, Reinvention, and Responsibility Act (S. 303), by comparison, contains 14 specific appropriations amounts. Many of S. 1's programs are duplicative as well as controversial. For example:
Punishing success. Section 1125A of the Senate committee bill would create the Education Finance Incentive Program, which would provide grants to states that Washington considers to have a better education financing system. The complicated formula is rigged to reward states that spend more money with no regard for how those resources are spent. Presumably, states with high achievement and low expenditures--those that get more for their dollars--would not be eligible. States with high funding and low achievement, however, would be eligible. As the 2000 NAEP reading scores demonstrate, increased funding does not necessarily lead to higher scores.
Providing grants to combat hate crimes. S. 1 authorizes funding for training, curricula, and instructional materials for the prevention of "crime and conflicts motivated by hate" through a Hate Crimes Prevention program.5 This controversial measure was left out of the House version of the ESEA reauthorization during the 106th Congress. If Members want to fund "hate crimes" programs, they should do so in separate legislation. Many Americans, wedded to traditional American principles of equal justice under law, oppose funding programs that teach children that thoughts and beliefs can make some crimes more grievous than others.
Duplicative programs. S. 1 authorizes an $850 million Innovative Education Program Strategies (IEPS) program, which would provide grants for such efforts as programs for disadvantaged children, class size reduction, teacher training, technology, and safe and drug free schools that are covered elsewhere in the bill. This provision duplicates other sections of the bill and demonstrates why President Bush felt compelled to promote consolidation in his education reform plan.
A discourse on Hawaiian history. For reasons unknown, Section 7201 of S. 1 includes a 13-page lesson on Hawaiian history. It serves as an introduction to a program that is not included in either the President's plan or H.R. 1, the House education committee's ESEA reauthorization.6
While the President's plan also recognizes the importance of local control and flexibility, S. 1 does not. It fails to include a provision like the President's Charter States and Districts measure, which enables states and local school districts to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Secretary of Education to establish specific, rigorous goals for student achievement in exchange for full flexibility. Under the five-year performance agreement in the President's plan, a Charter State would have to reach specific academic achievement goals for its students or be subject to the loss of funding and charter status. Education improvements would have to occur across the socioeconomic spectrum.
A similar provision called "Straight A's" was included last year in the Senate committee's attempt to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but it was left out of the current package. Its absence is one more indication that the bill provides flexibility in name only.
As politicians and interest groups rally to defend their traditional turf and dig deeper trenches to protect old, often ineffective, and duplicative programs from consolidation, reform-minded Senators should support revisions that cut red tape and provide flexibility through a Charter State provision. Governors, chief state school officers, and superintendents should have the option of implementing serious reforms in schools directly under their jurisdiction. If no other educational reforms survive the debate this session, a provision allowing Charter States would enable serious education reformers to continue their work in America's schools.
Backing Away from Fluency in
The President wants to help the many limited English proficient students learn English so they may have the same opportunities as their English-speaking peers. The Senate committee bill, however, would make few changes in the existing--and failing--program for these students.
Current federal assistance focuses mainly on bilingual education programs using native languages, which often have been found to teach children English more slowly and less effectively than other programs. There are, in fact, no requirements in current law that children demonstrate that they have learned English. Students are often enrolled in bilingual classes without their parents' knowledge or permission, and parents have had difficulty in removing their children from these programs. Such problems have led several states, such as California, to end or limit their participation in this federal program.
The Bush plan would refocus bilingual education on the acquisition of English, consolidating bilingual education programs administered by the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs into performance-based grants to states and school districts. States would be held accountable for annual increases in English proficiency and required to teach children in English after three consecutive years in school. The President's plan would lift restrictions that prevent teachers from using methods of instruction that have been proven to help students learn English, such as English immersion programs.
In contrast, S. 1 contains 84 pages of various bilingual programs supporting everything from learning ancestral languages, to career counseling, to meeting the "needs of changing populations of such students," to post-doctoral studies. There are, however, still no requirements that students learn English. While the bill would increase funding for bilingual programs, it would do little to ensure that the funding is spent to prepare children for academic success.
The Bush plan contains a provision to shield teachers, principals, and school board members from liability when they undertake reasonable actions to maintain order and discipline in the classroom that resembles a measure passed by both chambers during the 106th Congress. Limiting legal liability would reduce the threat of frivolous and arbitrary lawsuits against educators who act in their professional capacity to maintain order. It would eliminate a barrier toward restoring discipline in the classroom, empowering teachers to create an environment that is safe and conducive to learning.
HOW TO FIX S. 1
Members of the Senate do not have to enact a substandard education reform package that is long on rhetoric but short on substance. S. 1 could be strengthened and improved in a number of ways. Specifically, the Senate should:
Establish serious standards for accountability. The testing requirements in S. 1 should be strengthened to ensure that precise information is available to parents, teachers, and administrators in their efforts to assess student progress. The Senate should include President Bush's proposal to require that the tests administered are comparable across the state and year to year.
Grant choice for children in failing schools. The Senate should empower children in failing or unsafe schools to transfer to better schools, either public or private. It is not uncommon for Members of Congress and state legislators, as well as teachers themselves, to send their own children to private school while blocking school choice for low-income parents.7 It is hard to imagine Members sending their children to failing or unsafe schools. The children of poor parents should have the same chance to attend a school where they can receive a good, safe education that Members' children have.
Streamline federal education programs. The Senate should include provisions in S. 1 to consolidate duplicative and ineffective programs into performance-based grants to states and districts. It should implement the framework in the President's plan, which focuses funding on fundamental programs rather than on spreading the federal dollars around just to please special interests.
Promote local flexibility. The Senate bill should allow states, districts, and schools to design programs that will enable them to meet the tougher accountability requirements without imposing burdensome regulations. Reform-minded states should be able to enter into a Charter State agreement with Washington that guarantees increased academic achievement in exchange for full programmatic flexibility.
Although touted as the Senate version of the President's ambitious education plan, S. 1 bears little resemblance to No Child Left Behind. Offering neither full accountability nor full flexibility, neither consolidation nor improvements to standing programs, the Senate committee bill merely represents a more expensive version of current law.
Like current law, S. 1 is destined to leave children behind unless changes are made by the full Senate. The Senate can and should do a better job of improving educational opportunities for America's children than is embodied in the legislative vehicle approved by its Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Krista Kafer is Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
1. For the President's proposal, No Child Left Behind, see http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/reports/no-child-left-behind.html (March 19, 2001).
2. NAEP reading assessments for 1992-2000. See http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/.
7. Nina Sh okraii Rees and Jennifer Garrett, "How Members of Congress Practice School Choice," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1377, June 14, 2000.