Bush Education Agenda Headed for Renewal

By Michelle R. Davis & Erik W. Robelen — November 03, 2004 5 min read
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President Bush, who touted campaign plans to build on his bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act with new measures aimed at the secondary school level, has won a second term in the White House in a hard-fought race with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. The Democratic challenger called Mr. Bush to concede late on the morning of Nov. 3.

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The Bush Education Agenda

The president will likely get a boost for his education agenda with the increase in Republicans’ slim majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Mr. Bush has secured a majority of the popular vote, and amassed what appeared to be a big enough lead in the electorally crucial state of Ohio to declare victory.

The Republican nominee put noticeably less emphasis on education during his second campaign for the White House than he did four years ago, but he nonetheless spelled out a range of new ideas and programs. Mr. Bush called for requiring more testing at the high school level, providing new supports for struggling middle and high school readers, and giving pay hikes to teachers who improve student achievement, among other ideas.

WASHINGTON, United States: Supporters of US President George W. Bush sleep on the floor of the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington at the Republican National Committee election night party 03 November 2004 as the presidential vote was thrown into turmoil as Democratic challenger John Kerry refused to surrender to Bush. The races in the state of Ohio and New Mexico have been called too close to call as broken machines and fatigue halted counting in Iowa.

President Bush also frequently talked on the campaign trail about the nearly 3-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, the signature education accomplishment of his first four years. The Bush administration has vowed to stay the course with the federal law, which won overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress but has come under increasing attack since the president signed the measure in January 2002.

“It’s as if a tree has been planted that really needs at least another four years of nurture to be secure,” Sandy Kress, who previously was Mr. Bush’s education adviser and has informally advised the campaign, said on the morning of Nov. 3. “What No Child Left Behind represents will be continued, will live, will be nurtured, and will be given a chance to make a real difference in the way education works.”

Mr. Kress added: “That’s not to say that, administratively and legislatively, there won’t be opportunities to improve and strengthen and make things work smarter and better.” The administration has so far resisted calls to amend the federal statute, the latest version of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The law will officially come up for reauthorization in three years. Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, and a former top aide to House Democrats on education, said he believes a second term for President Bush signals few changes to the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The next four years are Bush holding tight to No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Jennings said. He called the president’s campaign proposals, which included high school initiatives as well as teacher incentives, “campaign rhetoric just to say he had a program.” Mr. Jennings said he believed few, if any, would actually be enacted.

“Those things were just props for the campaign,” Mr. Jennings maintained.

Mr. Jennings predicted that there would be little additional funding for the No Child Left Behind Act in a second Bush term, something the Democrats said during the campaign was sorely lacking.

Reg Weaver, the president of the 2.7-million-member National Education Association, which endorsed Sen. Kerry in the campaign, said he believes the No Child Left Behind law will see changes during the next Congress.

“I think the question is no longer shall the law be changed,” said Mr. Weaver, whose union has been sharply critical of the federal law as written. “I think the question is how it should be changed. … I do believe there are Republicans and Democrats who see that there needs to be some changes.”

Kathleen Porter-Magee, the associate research director at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said she thought it would be more difficult for the president to push through some of his new ideas for high schools and teacher quality during a second term.

For example, Mr. Bush has said he wants to require more testing for high school students. He has proposed to phase in mandatory testing each year in grades 9-11. Currently, states must test students in reading and mathematics only once in high school under the No Child Left Behind Act. The president has also called for financial rewards for teachers who improve student achievement.

Such ideas would be unlikely to garner the type of bipartisan support Mr. Bush rallied for passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, said Ms. Porter-Magee.

“There is more resistance than there was then,” she said. “There was broad bipartisan support, but now when it comes to education, things are a little more polarized.”

Mr. Weaver of the NEA said his union would oppose more testing.

The current testing focus of the No Child Left Behind Act has “caused too many schools to be labeled as failing,” he said, and he argued that still more testing is wrongheaded. “It gives the impression that testing is the only mechanism that can be used to determine whether or not a school can be successful,” Mr. Weaver said.

The Race for Congress

Some analysts also expect President Bush and Republicans in Congress to press hard to expand broader federal support for private school vouchers over the next four years. The first-ever federal voucher program, a pilot plan in the District of Columbia, was enacted earlier this year.

Republican U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter talks to reporters at his election night headquarters in Philadelphia Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004. Specter was seeking to secure a fifth term against challengers, including Democrat challenger Joe Hoeffel.

Republicans retained and built on majorities in both the House and the Senate. A handful of Senate and House races were too close to call on Nov. 3, but Republicans have added at least three seats to their majority in the Senate and at least four in the House.

The biggest upset was that of Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate’s Democratic leader, who appears to have been defeated by former Rep. John Thune, a Republican.

In early results on Election Day, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Republican and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal education spending, appeared to be at risk of losing to his Democratic challenger, Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel. But Mr. Specter pulled out a victory.

Two veteran state schools chiefs who sought election to the Senate met with defeat. In South Carolina, Democratic state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum lost to Republican Rep. Jim DeMint who sailed to victory with 54 percent of the vote. In Florida, the race was closer. But on Nov. 3, Betty Castor, a Democrat and a former state education commissioner, conceded to Republican Mel Martinez, a former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development under President Bush.

At least one member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee won’t be returning to Capitol Hill next year. In Georgia, Republican Rep. Max Burns appeared to have lost to his Democratic challenger, John Barrow, an Athens County commissioner.

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