Four years ago this month, the House of Representatives delivered on one of President Bush’s top objectives when it approved the first draft of the No Child Left Behind Act. The Senate followed suit in June of that year. By December 2001, the final package was headed to the president’s desk.
Fast-forward to the present, and it’s striking how little attention Mr. Bush’s recent plans to expand the No Child Left Behind law at the high school level have gotten on Capitol Hill.
House Republican leaders on education made clear this month they won’t be taking legislative action on the package in 2005. A spokesman for Republicans on the Senate education committee said that panel, too, has other pressing priorities that make action improbable this year.
Instead, Congress appears about to complete work on one major education bill the president didn’t even want: the reauthorization of the federal vocational education law. Mr. Bush had hoped to divert all the money authorized under the popular law to his high school agenda, but lawmakers have shown no appetite for that strategy.
“We expect we will have a number of hearings [on high school improvement] throughout this year,” Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and a staunch defender of the No Child Left Behind Act, said when asked about the president’s high school agenda recently.
“Before we go out and begin to call for [more] assessments, given the current requirements, I think we need to take a look at what is happening out there,” Rep. Boehner said during a May 5 press conference.
Speaking at the same event, Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who chairs the Education Reform Subcommittee, added of the Bush approach: “Frankly, there’s political opposition to it, and it’s not just Democrats. It’s within the Republican Party as well. And sometimes you have to go through a massaging process before you can overcome those political constraints.”
He added, “Maybe next year, I don’t know when, there’s the possibility of legislation.”
Although President Bush made education a bigger focus of his first-term presidential bid, he often promoted his plans to expand testing and accountability at the high school level on the 2004 campaign trail. And shortly after his re-election, he made clear that he expected action in Congress.
“I’ve earned [political] capital in this election, and I’m going to spend it,” he said in November. “You’ve heard the agenda: Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror.” (“Bush’s School Agenda Will Get a 2nd Term,” Nov. 10, 2004.)
Mr. Bush has called for testing students each year in grades 9-11 in mathematics and reading. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states must administer such tests only once in high school. He also called for creating a $1.2 billion High School Intervention Fund to help improve high schools.
Yet, despite his postelection comments, the president himself seems to have invested little political capital in his high school agenda this year. He’s spent months across the country promoting his goals for changes in the Social Security system, but rarely says much about his high school agenda.
“The signals that the president sends by use of his own time and his own words matter on Capitol Hill,” said Norman J. Ornstein, an expert on politics at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “They’re not determinative, … but they’re very important, and if [lawmakers] don’t have a sense that this is really at the top of the priority list, then they’re going to turn to other things.”
The high school initiative faces other impediments.
“There’s unrest about the No Child Left Behind Act, and that’s translating into opposition to Bush’s high school proposal,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, and a former senior aide to House Democrats on education.
He added: “I’m sure Bush cares about this, but he’s not putting energy into it, and his secretary [of education] is so busy putting out wildfires on No Child Left Behind that she can’t put her time into it.”
Just this month, Utah’s governor signed a bill declaring that Utah education laws take priority over federal law. And Connecticut’s attorney general recently threatened to sue the federal government over the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing mandates.
But Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, said the Bush administration isn’t throwing in the towel.
“The secretary is aggressively on the road making the case that students need better preparation at the high school level to succeed in college and the workforce,” Ms. Aspey said. “We’re still vigorously pursuing the elements contained within the president’s proposal.”
And then there’s the issue of money. Analysts say the White House didn’t exactly pick a winning strategy by proposing to pay for its high school plans with money now dedicated to the politically popular Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act. That approach irked both Republicans and Democrats.
On May 4, the House overwhelmingly passed a reauthorization of the law, about two months after the Senate approved a similar bill, 99-0. The bills are headed to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve the differences. (“House Approves Perkins Reauthorization,” May 11, 2005.)
At the same time, Rep. Castle expressed sympathy for the thrust of President Bush’s high school agenda at the press conference earlier this month.
“I happen to believe, philosophically, in what the president is saying,” he said. “If you’re going to have No Child Left Behind, you do need to extend it out until the end of high school at some point, but I’m not exactly sure how to do that.”
The prospects don’t appear any better on the other side of the Capitol, where Sen. Michael B. Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, is the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
“Senator Enzi has made several other education issues the first priority,” said Craig Orfield, a spokesman for the panel’s Republicans, noting major reauthorization bills on vocational education, higher education, and the Head Start preschool program.
“He’s also aware,” Mr. Orfield said, “that there are very differing opinions about No Child Left Behind.”
Mr. Orfield predicted that it would be next year before the Senate committee might take any action related to President Bush’s high school plans.
Sen. Enzi, he said, “wants to take his time to really assess the changes that are being proposed.”