NCLB in the News: Think Tankers Debate Whether Bush Got Hoodwinked

February 09, 2009 2 min read

One inquiring mind asked me this week why this blog has been dark for three weeks. The simple answer is: NCLB hasn’t been in the news. Everything has been about the stimulus. Until last Thursday.

At the American Enterprise Institute, Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli held an event discussing a paper on NCLB. Their thesis is that George Bush compromised his conservative principles by including liberal ideas in NCLB. As Yogi Petrilli helped us envision in a guided meditation (you had to be there), the public response to the law would have been completely different if it hadn’t set the 2014 deadline for universal proficiency; hadn’t included subgroups for racial categories or special education students in the accountability system; and hadn’t required all teachers to be highly qualified. NCLB included each element, Petrilli and Hess argue, because liberal groups (e.g., the Education Trust) and liberals in Congress (e.g., Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.) wanted them. To win bipartisan support, Hess and Petrilli say, Bush compromised his ideals and created a bill that looked more like the liberal Great Society than his “compassionate conservatism.”

The paper is a decent primer explaining the unique coalition that formed to support the law. The NEA, many education groups, and small-government Republicans oppose it, while the Education Trust and big business leaders support it.

But at yesterday’s event, commenters weren’t buying Hess and Petrilli’s thesis that Bush was hoodwinked. “He knew full well what he was buying in to,” said Andy Rotherham, a moderate Democrat who worked in the Clinton White House and may work in the Obama administration (as Hess pointed out). Bush and other Republican supporters backed the 2014 goal because they understood that states wouldn’t have set aggressive achievement goals without it, said Dianne Piche of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights. Even a Bush appointee criticized the paper. The goal of 100 percent proficiency may seem insurmountable, but some schools serving predominantly minority communities are showing they can do it, said Williamson Evers, who was the Education Department’s policy and planning chief before returning his perch at the conservative Hoover Institution last month.

Here’s what no one talked about: The politics of NCLB reauthorization will be different in the Obama administration. President Bush had narrow Republican majorities in Congress. President Obama has larger Democratic majorities. How will he assemble a coalition to support his vision of what NCLB should become?

P.S. I am not the “national education reporter” whom Rotherham overheard complaining about the lack of cookies. Who’s going to ‘fess up?

UPDATE: You can watch or listen to the event at this page on AEI’s site. You’ll find the video and audio feeds in the box headlined “Event Materials” in the upper right corner.

A version of this news article first appeared in the NCLB: Act II blog.