Bush’s High School Plan Off to Rocky Start
Influential Republican Expresses Doubts About Initiative's Prospects
President Bush’s plan to expand the No Child Left Behind Act’s demands at the high school level—a top priority of his second-term domestic agenda—is “not likely” to move forward on Capitol Hill this year, a senior House Republican on education issues predicted last week.
“I hope that eventually we can work something out,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., the chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee. “I can’t [rate] the chances being very high at this time.”
Mr. Castle, speaking at a Feb. 9 forum here sponsored by the Business Roundtable, noted that some conservatives in Congress are dissatisfied with the No Child Left Behind Act and will have little appetite for expanding its mandates, and that more liberal members are frustrated with current funding levels under the law.
For his part, Mr. Castle said he is generally supportive of the president’s plans for high schools, but would oppose paying for those by shifting money away from existing vocational and technical education spending, as President Bush proposed last week in his fiscal 2006 budget. ("Cuts Proposed in Bush Budget Hit Education," this issue.)
“I’m there,” he said in a follow-up interview, “but I don’t know if we can do it in the context of the budgeting this year.”
Rep. Castle’s remarks are one of the clearest political signals yet that the president may have a tough time persuading Congress to go along with his plans for expanded testing and accountability requirements in high school.
In his budget request, Mr. Bush is proposing to spend $250 million on the proposal for additional testing in mathematics and English, as well as $1.2 billion for a High School Intervention program.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued a statement later in the week responding to Rep. Castle’s remarks.
“As with all major policy initiatives, there will be negotiations with the legislative branch,” she said. “This is the beginning of the process.”
Last week’s event here sponsored by the Business Roundtable, a group of chief executive officers of the nation’s largest corporations that lobbies on education and other policy areas, focused on the present and future of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Ms. Spellings, who spoke at the outset of the event but did not stay to field questions, reiterated the Bush administration’s commitment not only to the federal school accountability law, but also to its expansion.
“[W]e must finish the job, and build on that work in our high schools,” she said. “Every child needs to graduate with the skills to succeed in higher education or the workplace or in the military, and right now, we’re falling short.”
During the panel discussion, participants were asked to grade the law’s success after three years.
“I give the concept of No Child Left Behind an A,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “I think it’s going the right way. In terms of funding the No Child Left Behind [Act], I’m going to call it ‘incomplete.’ ”
Sen. Kennedy repeated his contention that the law is woefully underfunded, estimating that between 3 million and 4 million children who are eligible for help under the law’s Title I program for disadvantaged students are not receiving any benefits.
“I give No Child Left Behind an A, with some ‘buts’ attached to it,” said Rep. Castle, whose subcommittee of the House Education and the Workforce Committee handles prekindergarten through high school issues.
Henry Johnson, the Mississippi state superintendent of education and another forum participant, said: “I give it very high marks for its concept, probably B or B plus for implementation.” He said the Bush administration still needs to do some work on the law’s mandates for testing special education students.
As for the issue of whether the No Child Left Behind law might see some legislative changes, the panelists appeared skeptical.
“No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization in ’07,” said Carmel Martin, Sen. Kennedy’s chief education aide. “I think it is unlikely that we will reopen the law legislatively before that time, but again we’re hoping to address some of the concerns right now through the regulatory process.”
Rep. Castle echoed that stance, as did Raymond J. Simon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.
“We need to try to squeeze every ounce of flexibility out of the law,” Mr. Simon said. “We have to work with the Congress to find where the tweaking needs to occur. I totally agree, we don’t need to open this law back up.”
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