With the release last week of the Bush administration’s blueprint for changes to its signature education program, it’s clear that Republicans and Democrats agree that the priority should be improving the nation’s lowest-achieving schools.
How to do that, though, will be the subject of partisan debate.
In its plans for the No Child Left Behind Act, unveiled the day after President Bush’s State of the Union address, the administration said it wants private and charter schools to create competition that would spur improvement in substandard schools. It also wants the NCLB law to give district leaders the authority to circumvent collective bargaining agreements so they can assign their best teachers to those schools.
“We are attempting to answer the question: What are we going to do for kids who are trapped in schools that are chronically underperforming?” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a Jan. 24 call with reporters.
View a copy of the report, “Building on Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening the No Child Left Behind Act,” as well as a press release and a fact sheet related to the expansion of the federally mandated school choice provisions of NCLB.
Democrats, however, have their own priorities for improving the lowest-performing schools. They would create incentives for teachers to work in the toughest schools, give teachers professional development in skills they need to improve student achievement, and attempt to improve states’ services to those schools.
Meanwhile, they are nearly unanimous in declaring the private-school-choice proposal dead on arrival. They point out that the administration was unable to insert vouchers into the NCLB law when it passed in 2001 with Republicans in control of the House. Now, the Democrats have majorities in the House and the Senate.
The partisan divide could unnecessarily sidetrack Congress as it tries to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act this year, education advocates say.
“Every minute spent debating a voucher proposal means less time for making needed changes to a law that has been long on promise and short on progress,” Edward J. McElroy, the president of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. “That does nothing to help our children, our teachers, or our schools.”
State of NCLB
But one influential lawmaker suggested that the private-school-voucher plans would be quickly dismissed by Democrats without changing the odds that the law would be reauthorized on schedule this year. The most important signal that President Bush is intent on reaching a deal with Democrats will come when he releases his fiscal 2008 budget proposal, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.
“One of the ways he can help us is to provide sufficient funding,” Mr. Miller said in an interview. “The reauthorization of No Child Left Behind is necessary and doable. … Inadequate funding [would] make it more difficult.”
As Secretary Spellings started her campaign to generate support for the administration’s plans last week in Chicago, she said the president’s budget, set for release Feb. 5, would include plans for substantial increases in education spending. She didn’t suggest how large those hikes would be, however.
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In his State of Union speech to a joint session of Congress on Jan. 23, President Bush briefly mentioned the No Child Left Behind law, saying that the 5-year-old legislation has spurred increased student achievement on some measures and that it should be renewed on schedule.
“We can lift student achievement even higher by giving local leaders flexibility to turn around failing schools and by giving families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose someplace better,” the president said.
In a 15-page document released the next day, the Education Department outlined several proposals it says would improve those schools, while keeping the current system of annual testing in reading and mathematics in grade 3-8 and once in high school, as well as the NCLB accountability system based on achievement goals for all racial, ethnic, special needs, and income groups.
The document, called “Building on Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening the No Child Left Behind Act,” proposed that an average of $4,000 in private school tuition be given to parents of children in schools that consistently fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the key measure of improvement under the law. Students also could choose a scholarship of up to $3,000 to pay for what the department calls “intensive tutoring.”
The choice options, called Promise Scholarships, would be available in schools that have fallen short of their AYP goals for five straight years. Ms. Spellings estimates that 1,800 U.S. schools are currently in that category.
Separately, the department would create a program through which districts could institute their own districtwide choice programs modeled after the 3-year-old federal voucher program in the District of Columbia.
Charters and Teachers
The Bush administration’s plan also would go further than many Democratic plans in recruiting teachers to work in underperforming schools and in transforming those schools into charters, which are publicly financed but independently operated schools.
Under the plan, the NCLB law would give districts the power to circumvent state caps on the number of charters and collective-bargaining rules when intervening in schools that fail to make AYP for five years in a row. The charter authority—like vouchers—would expand the options available in districts with high numbers of poor-performing schools, the Education Department’s blueprint says. In rural areas, districts could provide new opportunities through virtual charter schools, it adds.
The administration also wants to give district leaders the authority to overrule provisions of teacher contracts so that they can assemble the best possible staffs for underperforming schools.
As with private school choice, the proposal on trumping collective bargaining won’t advance in the Education and Labor Committee, Rep. Miller said.
While the administration and Democratic leaders appear to be far apart on policy issues, Rep. Miller said he thinks the No Child Left Behind bill can be reauthorized as slated this year.
When President Bush unveils his fiscal 2008 budget proposal next week, it will signal whether he and his administration are serious about working with Democrats by proposing significant increases for the law, Rep. Miller said in the interview.
The department’s blueprint proposes several new programs intended to help turn around subpar schools. In addition to the private school vouchers, it proposes line items to assist low-performing schools in general and high schools in particular.
A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Bush Offers ‘Blueprint’ For NCLB