Bush Outlines Plans To Help Older Students

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President Bush homed in on the needs of older students, from middle school to adulthood, in his State of the Union Address last week, as he rolled out a set of proposals he says would help struggling students and produce a more highly skilled workforce.

President Bush delivers his State of the Union Address.

President Bush, with Vice President Dick Cheney listening intently, makes a point during his Jan. 20 State of the Union Address. Mr. Bush outlined several proposals for new funding for education initiatives, from job training to student drug testing.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

He also used the speech—delivered 10 months before voters will decide whether to grant him a second term—to both trumpet and defend the No Child Left Behind Act, which has come under fire from many of the Democratic presidential candidates as well as state and local educators.

"We must ensure that older students and adults can gain the skills they need to find work now," the president said. "Many of the fastest-growing occupations require strong math and science preparation, and training beyond the high school level. So tonight I propose a series of measures called Jobs for the 21st Century."

For example, Mr. Bush would create a $100 million reading-intervention program for middle and high schoolers, spend an additional $120 million on mathematics education for secondary students, and launch a $250 million Community-based Job Training program for community and technical colleges linked with local employers seeking more skilled workers.

The president is expected in early February to formally unveil his fiscal 2005 budget request, which will include these proposals.

The focus on middle and high school students was welcome news to Susan Frost, the executive director of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

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Highlights: "Bush on Education."

"What we are encouraged about, frankly, is the recognition that the president made in his speech that we have to start directly intervening with older students struggling in reading and math," she said.

Ms. Frost noted, for instance, that money under the flagship Title I program for disadvantaged students goes mostly to elementary pupils, and that the $1 billion Reading First program targets children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

"We don't have a big federal initiative for our middle and high school kids," she said.

Shuffling Children Along

Education played a relatively small role in President Bush's televised address to a joint session of Congress. He talked at length about foreign policy and the war on terrorism, and discussed a host of other domestic issues, from the economy and taxes to immigration reform and health care.

His education comments began with the No Child Left Behind Act, one of his top domestic accomplishments, which he is certain to bring up often during his re-election campaign. He touted his view that the law was working and took aim at its detractors.

"Some want to undermine the No Child Left Behind Act by weakening standards and accountability," Mr. Bush told lawmakers and other dignitaries gathered in the House chamber Jan. 20. "This nation will not go back to the days of simply shuffling children along from grade to grade without them learning the basics."

In the Democratic response, delivered minutes after Mr. Bush's speech, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota contended that the president has not supported an adequate amount of money to make the law succeed.

"The heart of [the No Child Left Behind Act] was a promise," Sen. Daschle said. "The federal government would set high standards for every student and hold schools responsible for the results. In exchange, schools would receive the resources to meet the new standards.

"America's schools are holding up their end of the bargain; the president has not held up his."

In an interview with NBC News that night, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, fresh off winning the Iowa Democratic caucuses on Jan. 19, echoed that complaint. He accused Mr. Bush of an "avoidance of responsibility on No Child Left Behind."

Community Colleges

Speaking at Owens Community College in Perrysburg Township, Ohio, the day after his address to Congress, the president reiterated several of his education proposals, especially the $250 million plan for strengthening the role of community colleges in workforce development.

"The community college system is flexible," Mr. Bush said. "The community college system is local. The community college system accepts input."

"I think it's great that he's talking about community colleges, and I hope the effect of it is to bring [them] more into the general policy discussion about education," said Thomas R. Bailey, the director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

But he had two cautions. The proposal "comes in the context of sharp cuts in state funding of community colleges ... over the last couple of years," Mr. Bailey said, and isn't enough to compensate for those losses.

He also expressed concern about a sole focus on the job- training aspect of community colleges, given that they also serve as a transition to four-year institutions.

"That's an extremely important function," Mr. Bailey said.

Mr. Bush announced two other school-related items in the State of the Union speech that are potentially controversial. He called for a big increase in aid to promote sexual abstinence among young people. And he proposed $25 million in fiscal 2005, up from $2 million this fiscal year, for grants to schools that wish to conduct student drug testing.

That proposal—and Mr. Bush's contention that such programs have lowered drug use among teenagers—drew swift criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, which announced plans last week to mail booklets to 17,000 school administrators detailing its critique of drug testing as a prevention policy.

"Our concern is that educators get the whole story on drug testing," said Anjuli Verma, the public education coordinator for the New York City- based ACLU, "not just the government propaganda."

Staff Writer Darcia Harris Bowman contributed to this report.

Vol. 23, Issue 20, Pages 22, 27

Published in Print: January 28, 2004, as Bush Outlines Plans To Help Older Students
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