School Choice & Charters

Bush Promises Swift Action On Education

By Erik W. Robelen — January 10, 2001 9 min read
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George W. Bush will enter the White House this month pledging a bipartisan approach to improving the nation’s public schools, a goal observers from both major political parties say is feasible, depending on which aspects of his campaign agenda he seeks to emphasize.

“There’s so much there of what he talks about which is not at all at variance with the Democrats,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education and a former assistant education secretary under President George Bush, the president-elect’s father. “Education may be the window that he would reach out and use to bring people together.”

“There is reason to believe that we can work together,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, a Democrat on the Senate education committee. “But if the bill becomes a way to take money away from public schools, it’s going to be a 50-50 Senate that’s not going to let it go anywhere.”

If his choice of an education secretary is any indication, President-elect Bush is off to a good start in appealing to both parties. The selection of Houston schools Superintendent Rod Paige has received widespread praise, and he is expected to win Senate confirmation easily.

And Mr. Bush sought to sound a note of bipartisanship late last month when he summoned about 20 Republican and Democratic lawmakers to Austin, Texas, to discuss education.

“It was a very lively exchange with more harmony than expected,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who chairs the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families.

Voucher Issue Looms

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who also attended the meeting, agreed. In particular, Mr. Bayh suggested, at least some Democrats might join with Republicans in supporting a consolidation of numerous federal education programs to enhance flexibility in exchange for strengthening accountability demands on states and districts and increasing federal funding.

But the big question mark is vouchers.

Mr. Bush has proposed allowing students in persistently poor-performing schools to use a portion of the schools’ federal Title I aid—coupled with state funds where allowed—to help pay for private schooling, among other educational options. Sen. Bayh and others cautioned that Democrats would draw the line at cooperation on such a proposal.

“I expect [Mr. Bush] to fight for vouchers,” Mr. Bayh said in an interview. “The challenge is for him to be both principled and practical. ... If he just insists on vouchers, it could imperil everything else.”

“He understands very well the 50-50 composition of the Senate,” added Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., who also attended the Austin meeting with the former Texas governor. “Vouchers become such a red flag that I sincerely doubt he’ll let that sink the overall initiative.”

A Jan. 2 news article in TheWashington Post prompted a stir with its suggestion, based on interviews with members of Congress and anonymous Bush-Cheney transition officials, that the president-elect would not put much muscle behind the voucher element of his agenda, but offer it more as a symbolic gesture to appease conservatives.

Scott McClellan, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney transition, disputed that story, however, insisting that providing school choice for students in poor-performing schools is a crucial piece of the incoming president’s agenda for this year.

“He remains committed to the proposals he laid out during the campaign, including providing parents with more options,” Mr. McClellan said.

A Tough Road

Vouchers aside, Mr. Bush’s goal of getting an early victory on education may be difficult for other reasons.

It remained unclear last week exactly what legislative strategy the president-elect was planning. Mr. Bush has indicated that his first bill will address schools, but Mr. McClellan would not say whether it will be a broad measure that encompasses much of the federal role in education, such as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or a more limited proposal, such as a reading initiative, that might stand a better chance of quick passage in Congress.

“We will make announcements at the appropriate time,” Mr. McClellan said. “It’s a work in progress.”

During the Austin meeting, some members of Congress advised the president-elect to take the latter approach. “There were suggestions that he lead with his K-2 reading initiative,” Rep. Castle said.

The Delaware Republican added: “I made the point that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is a very complicated piece of legislation. ... It’s not going to just get done by snapping your fingers.”

Indeed, after more than 11/2 years of work, the 106th Congress that just ended threw in the towel on its efforts to reauthorize the ESEA, which had bogged down in partisan disagreements. The law includes Title I—the biggest federal initiative in K-12 education—and a host of other programs.

One challenge is that the complex law touches on a range of thorny subjects, according to Vic Klatt, who resigned last fall as the education policy coordinator for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“There are big issues that people haven’t even thought of,” he said, such as new testing requirements Mr. Bush has proposed, school prayer, and bilingual education. Congress and the new president will also have to decide whether to continue funding for two of President Clinton’s priorities: reducing class sizes by hiring 100,000 new teachers and providing money for emergency school repairs.

“I think it’s going to take a long while for the system to work its will,” predicted Mr. Klatt, who now is a vice president of Van Scoyoc Associates, a Washington lobbying firm.

Even starting with a smaller initiative such as a reading bill could be difficult, said Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association. He said that Mr. Bush’s proposed requirement that states participating in his reading program test all students in grades 3-8 each year could spell trouble. Mr. Bush has proposed a similar state testing requirement for schools receiving funds under the Title I program.

“Do conservatives support a federal mandate of testing every kid, every year?” Mr. Packer said.

He added that Mr. Bush’s campaign proposal to focus Head Start on early literacy and move it to the Department of Education from the Department of Health and Human Services would also certainly spark a big debate if included in such a reading package.

Room for Agreement

Still, lawmakers from both parties express some optimism that they can eventually reach a meeting of the minds with the president- elect.

“On education in particular, my recent meeting in Austin with President-elect Bush leads me to believe that there is room for a great deal of agreement,” Rep. George Miller of California, the new ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement last week.

In an interview before the Austin meeting, Mr. Miller said he was encouraged by the president-elect’s emphasis on setting high standards, demanding accountability, and closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers. Mr. Miller noted that those ideas were important ingredients in a deal worked out by House Democrats and Republicans last year as part of the proposed ESEA reauthorization.

“I think there really is an opportunity here,” the California Democrat said. But he added that a great deal would depend on how Mr. Bush navigates the political terrain when he reaches the White House.

“Where does he plan on planting his flag when he comes to Congress?” Mr. Miller said. “He’s got to sort through the politics of the Republican caucus in the House,” which includes some staunchly conservative members in leadership positions who have been wary of a strong federal role in education and have been active proponents of school vouchers.

‘Savings Account’ Plans

While vouchers are sure to prove contentious in the coming education debate, another proposal likely to resurface this year opens the door, albeit indirectly, for the federal government to help with private school tuition costs: education savings accounts.

Such a plan was vetoed by President Clinton as part of a larger tax package last fall, but won 61 votes in the Senate last year, including those of seven Democrats. Under the bill, families could contribute up to $2,000 a year to an education savings account that would earn tax-free interest. Parents could draw on the accounts for an array of K-12 and higher education expenses, including private school tuition, school uniforms, books, and other supplies.

During the campaign, Mr. Bush expressed support for education savings accounts, which currently are available only for higher education costs.

“We think we have a pretty good chance with that,” said Erika Lestelle, an education policy analyst for the Washington- based Family Research Council. She said passing such legislation was one of her group’s top education priorities.

Mr. Bush unveiled a laundry list of other education proposals during his campaign—from improving math and science instruction to forgiving college loans to teachers—but it remains unclear to what extent they will come into play now.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, suggests that many of those proposals served to cloud Mr. Bush’s original agenda.

Early on, “he laid out a comprehensive package grounded in a pretty coherent set of principles,” Mr. Finn said. That agenda emphasized flexibility, accountability, testing, and school choice.

“But for reasons of daily tactic, [the campaign] lapsed often into a new-program-a-day approach,” added Mr. Finn, who was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. “I worried that they were planting trees instead of designing a forest.”

Getting Advice

While the new Department of Education leadership is a long way from complete—no appointees beyond Mr. Paige had been announced as of press time—Mr. Bush has assembled an education transition team that includes several people who advised the campaign on school issues, including Margaret LaMontagne, Mr. Bush’s senior education adviser in Austin.

In addition, he has named 31 members to an outside advisory group that will provide further guidance. That list includes a range of mostly conservative-leaning education officials and experts and a handful of business leaders from large corporations.

But several members of the advisory team, when asked last week, said that they were still unclear about what role the group was expected to play, and said that the members were unlikely to gather for any policy discussions.

Some in the education community were displeased with the list. Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, praised Mr. Paige’s nomination as education secretary, but was less impressed by the group of external advisers.

“This is an education transition team that doesn’t contain any [K-12] educators, really,” Mr. Hunter said, contending that many of the members had “made their living beating up on public education.” He said: “Round up the usual suspects—that’s what that list is.”

But Gary M. Huggins, the executive director of the Education Leaders Council, a group of mostly conservative state officials that saw three of its members named to the team, had a different view.

“It’s a very strong list of people,” he said. "[The members] have serious credibility as reformers.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Bush Promises Swift Action On Education

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