President Bush used his final State of the Union address to once again call on Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act. But the one concrete idea he proposed in the speech—$300 million for public and private school choice—won’t generate much enthusiasm in Congress, particularly from Democrats.
The president proposed a program dubbed “Pell Grants for Kids” that would provide grants on a competitive basis to states, school districts, cities, and non-profit organizations to create scholarship programs for low-income students in schools that have missed their achievement targets under the NCLB law, and in high schools in which graduation rates are lower than 60 percent.
“We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income students realize their full potential,” Mr. Bush said, referring to the popular federal aid program for higher education. “Now let’s apply that same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.”
Some members of Congress said the proposal appeared to be another attempt by the Bush administration to secure federal funding for private school vouchers.
“I’m just surprised that we’re still stuck on vouchers, which is not a way to support public education in our country,” Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in an interview.
Last year, Mr. Bush proposed $300 million in his fiscal 2008 budget proposal for “promise” and “opportunity” scholarships which, like the Pell Grants for Kids proposal, would have enabled students in struggling schools to transfer to better-performing schools, including private schools, using federal funds. The proposal never gained traction in Congress.
But Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the education panel, praised the latest idea.
“The president tonight offered a path that will not only strengthen NCLB, but build on its successes by expanding educational opportunities for disadvantaged children,” Rep. McKeon said in a statement. “Educational choice is a hallmark of our higher education system and a proven success in our nation’s capital; that same principle, if extended to students and families at the K-12 level, has the power to transform our entire educational system.”
Other Republicans on the House education panel weren’t as enthusiastic about expanded private school choice. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., who hadn’t seen details of the proposal as of last night, said she’d be willing to take a look at it “as long it isn’t really vouchers,” which she opposes.
Prospects for NCLB Reauthorization
President Bush also called on Congress to reauthorize the 6-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which has been up for renewal since last year but has been mired in disagreements among lawmakers.
“Now we must work together to increase accountability, add flexibility for states and districts, reduce the number of high school dropouts, and provide extra help for struggling schools,” he said. “The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement. It is succeeding.”
While some Republicans stood and clapped at the president’s mention of the law, only some Democrats applauded in their seats. And Mr. Bush’s claims that the law is benefiting schools met with audible sneers from some in the packed House chamber.
Democratic education committee leaders plan to move forward with reauthorization of the main federal K-12 education law on their own terms. Still, they hope to work with the president.
“I hope this is a turn that he will be a positive force,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education panel, said in an interview last night in reference to the president’s rhetorical support for changing the NCLB law. “But the track record is not good.”
In particular, Rep. Miller said that the president and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings were two of the most vocal critics of the discussion draft bill that Reps. Miller and McKeon released last fall.
What’s more, Rep. Miller said, the president has “poisoned the well” with many members of Congress by failing to propose adequate funding for the NCLB law in the past.
Rep. Miller and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate education committee, are planning to push reauthorization, with the hopes of sending a bill to the president this spring. Rep. Miller would prefer that the bill be bipartisan, but he appeared willing to move forward with a Democratic bill.
But even lawmakers who largely support the basic tenets of NCLB acknowledge it’s going to be difficult to get a reauthorization bill passed this year.
“I think there’s a critical center on NCLB,” Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., said in an interview. But, he added, the law has critics on both sides of the aisle.
“It’s going to be very difficult politically” to reauthorize the measure this year, Rep. Andrews said. “It’s a tough coalition to build.”
Help for Religious Schools
Mr. Bush also called for a White House “summit” meeting on inner-city children and religious schools to highlight the lack of educational options for urban students. The event would bring together national, state, and local leaders in education, research, philanthropy, business, and community development to explore the challenges facing private schools in inner cities, including religious schools, according to a White House background document on the proposal.
Religious schools in inner-cities are closing for financial reasons, the White House said. From 1996 to 2004, nearly 1,400 inner-city religious schools closed, displacing 355,000 students, the White House document said. The event would seek to pinpoint solutions to this problem.
Mr. Bush will also propose $800 million in scholarships to help students from low-income families enroll in after-school and summer programs, including those run by religious organizations. The proposal was included in the White House’s background paper on the State of the Union, but wasn’t mentioned in the speech.