Published Online: January 31, 2001
Published in Print: January 31, 2001, as Democrats, GOP Agree in Principle on Federal Role

Democrats, GOP Agree in Principle on Federal Role

The sweeping education plan proposed by President Bush last week reflects a growing political consensus that the federal government should step up the pressure on states and school districts to improve academic achievement, especially for disadvantaged children, observers say.

While the details of how that pressure should be applied are sure to be the subject of debate in the coming months, Mr. Bush's plan has struck a chord among members of both major political parties who believe that federal funding should be tied to student performance.

"This whole package is actually trying in a serious way to leverage behavior changes," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant education secretary in the Reagan administration. "I now sense a pretty universal agreement [that the current shape of the federal role] needs considerable reworking."

Linked to the president's demand for more accountability is the promise of greater flexibility in spending federal aid. And both of those elements were infused in a proposal offered the same day by a group of centrist Democrats.

"President Bush has articulated a set of priorities that overlap significantly with our New Democratic proposal," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut said last week in announcing the plan. "We ... feel strongly that the circumstances have never been better for breaking the ongoing partisan stalemate and reaching bipartisan agreement on legislation that will leverage real improvement in our schools."

"Both parties have been talking about education for quite a while," Mr. Bush said in a Jan. 23 address from the East Room of the White House. "It's time to come together to get it done, so that we can truthfully say in America: No child will be left behind."

Under the president's plan, accountability for achievement would be enforced by a proposed requirement that states test 3rd through 8th graders in Title I schools every year in reading and mathematics. Only 15 states, including Mr. Bush's Texas, currently do so.

The plan would penalize states that failed over time to close the achievement gaps between students of different races and family-income levels by reducing a portion of the states' Title I administrative funds. It would offer financial rewards to schools and states that closed those gaps.

"I believe strongly in local control of schools," Mr. Bush said last week. "But educational excellence for all is a national issue, and at this moment is a presidential priority."

More Accountability

Many states already have systems in place that call for penalizing consistently failing schools by removing their accreditation, shutting them down, or taking them over. In addition, some are implementing so- called high-stakes tests, which tie high school graduation, or promotion in the earlier grades, to satisfactory performance on state exams.

Current federal law also contains some accountability demands. The 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes the $8.6 billion-a-year Title I program for disadvantaged students, requires states to set up systems of standards and aligned assessments and demonstrate yearly progress. Some states are still struggling to comply with that mandate. That law also requires states and districts to intervene in poor-performing schools.

But the Bush plan would go further. In addition to the emphasis on more testing, coupled with rewards and penalties, it would pose a new threat for persistently failing schools: the loss of substantial federal aid.

And, in the most controversial provision of the accountability package, some of the federal money could eventually go to private schools.

If, after one year, a poor-performing Title I school showed no improvement, it would receive extra financial and technical assistance. After two years, the district would have to take corrective action and offer the school's pupils public school choice. Ultimately, after three years, parents of students in failing Title I schools could take a portion of the federal dollars, matched by state funds, to spend on tutoring or on tuition at another school, whether public, private, or religious.

"When schools do not teach and will not change, parents and students must have other meaningful options," President Bush argued last week.

But Democrats have made clear that an insistence on using federal money for private school vouchers would kill the deal. And given the razor-thin hold that Republicans now have in Congress, many political observers predict that the voucher element will eventually fall by the wayside.

Mr. Bush's plan would also consolidate most federal K-12 programs into a much smaller and more flexible set of funding sources. In addition, it would create a few new programs, including a K-2 reading initiative and a plan to improve math and science instruction.

Education Comes First

President Bush's Tuesday, Jan. 23, speech unveiling his education initiative was one in a series of education-related events the president participated in during his first full week in the White House, a period dubbed "Education Week" by the administration. His decision to make education his first major policy initiative was welcomed by lawmakers and educators.

"I just commend the president for putting education first on the national agenda," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said after a meeting with Mr. Bush. "As others have said, there are some areas of difference, but the overwhelming areas of agreement and support are very, very powerful."

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the panel's Subcommittee on Children and Families, also praised the Bush plan.

"This package is a call to arms for an improvement in our educational system," he said the day it was announced.

Some observers said they could not recall another president who had undertaken such a push on education so quickly.

"I certainly could not point you to anyone else that's done that," Mr. Finn of the Fordham Foundation said.

Many details of Mr. Bush's plan are still fuzzy. Although the White House presented the plan as a legislative proposal, no accompanying bills have been drafted.

But Mr. Bush made clear in his remarks that annual testing was an essential part of his agenda. "States should test each student each year," he said. "Without yearly testing, we don't know who is falling behind and who needs help."

Some observers were pleased with that emphasis.

"It's essential that we come around to more frequent testing," said Edward B. Rust, the chairman and chief executive officer of the State Farm Insurance Cos. and the chairman of the Business Roundtable's education task force. "Too much can happen in six months, let alone two or three years."

Others were less enthusiastic, however. "While we're totally committed to accountability based on performance, we question whether you need to test every child every year in grades 3 to 8," said Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., the co-chairman of the House New Democrat Coalition.

"We don't have a problem with providing a test at the end of every year," added Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "But if it becomes the only basis upon which a school's success is determined, it becomes extremely problematic."

Vouchers and testing are not the only aspects of the plan to face criticism. The wide-ranging package touches on many aspects of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including teacher quality, safe schools, bilingual education, and technology, and those provisions will also be scrutinized.

For example, Mr. Bush proposes to consolidate the federal E-rate program, which provides discounts on telecommunications services to schools and libraries, with technology-grant dollars distributed by the Department of Education.

Anne L. Bryant, the president of the National School Boards Association, said Mr. Bush should leave the popular education-rate program alone.

"It's a discount system, not a federal aid program," she said. "Undoing that and reconstructing it seems to be a huge waste of energy when the system's working."

'Straight A's' Revisited

Also, the plan appears to embrace the "Straight A's" legislation pushed by Republicans in the 106th Congress, which would allow states or districts to consolidate most federal aid authorized under the ESEA into a single block grant in exchange for negotiating a five-year performance agreement with the secretary of education. Those deals would set specific goals for increased student achievement. Such an approach was adamantly opposed by President Clinton and congressional Democrats in the last Congress.

Several of President Clinton's favorite programs would be consolidated under the Bush approach. The plan would merge funds from the Clinton class-size-reduction program, coupled with other money, into a broader teacher-quality fund, similar to a Republican bill pushed last year. Congressional Democrats have fought hard in the past to resist such efforts.

Likewise, the federal after-school initiative, which Mr. Clinton succeeded in almost doubling funding for late last year, to $846 million, would be merged with the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program into a new, flexible grant initiative.

One Senate Democratic aide, requesting anonymity, cautioned last week that a great deal depends on the proposed budget for fiscal 2002 that President Bush submits to Congress. The new administration is expected to unveil its budget plan in late February

"There's got to be a significant investment in education," the aide said.

During the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush promised to increase education spending by nearly $50 billion over five years, but White House aides declined to offer any specifics last week.

For their part, the so-called New Democrats— a centrist group affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council—insist that more federal spending is critical if the federal government is to expect more from schools.

"We want to give states and local districts the resources they need to help every student learn at a high level," said Sen. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, who has often worked with Republicans on education issues.

In addition to committing to more spending, the bill Mr. Lieberman and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., put forward would consolidate most federal K-12 programs into five, goal-oriented titles, demand measurable progress from states, and increase the targeting of federal aid to the neediest students.

Rep. Dooley, the lead sponsor of the House companion to the Senate bill, said the New Democrats' plan differs from that of the Bush administration in that it would direct more aid to poor students.

"Our proposal will ensure that more of the federal dollars will go to those schools with some of the greatest challenges," he said.

Vol. 20, Issue 20, Pages 1,24

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Correction: 
We provided an incorrect five-year estimate for the cost of President Bush's campaign proposals on education. The actual total is about $25 billion.

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