President Bush issued a pointed rebuttal last week to critics of the No Child Left Behind Act, rejecting arguments that the law heaps unrealistic demands on schools and vowing to oppose any efforts to weaken it.
“We’re not backing down,” Mr. Bush said May 11 at Butterfield Junior High School in Van Buren, Ark., one of three education-themed appearances he made last week. “I don’t care how much pressure they try to put on the process. I’m not changing my mind about high standards and the need for accountability.”
The president described the law’s detractors as too eager to make excuses for why schools would not be able to meet the law’s demands for academic improvement. He made similar arguments at stops in West Virginia and suburban Washington.
Mr. Bush acknowledged the tide of criticism that has emerged from schools, statehouses, and teachers’ unions directed at the measure that he signed in January 2002 and cites as a plus in his bid for re-election. But he said giving in to those concerns would ultimately undermine the law’s potential to help students in low-performing schools, from all racial and economic backgrounds.
Referring to the law’s requirement that students be able to read at grade level by 3rd grade, the president said, “Why is that raising expectations too high?” That standard is “what society should expect,” he said.
While he did not refer by name to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Mr. Bush appeared to jab at what he saw as contradictions in his opponent’s public statements and voting record on the No Child Left Behind Act.
The president noted that the measure passed Congress three years ago with strong bipartisan support, including the votes of “both senators from Massachusetts"—a reference to Mr. Kerry and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, another Democratic critic of the administration’s record on education.
Mr. Bush defended his education positions during the same week that his re-election campaign launched new education-centered ads, including one featuring first lady Laura Bush and a commercial in Spanish that is more critical of Mr. Kerry than its English-language version. (“Inside Pitch,” Federal File, this issue.)
One of the ads accuses Mr. Kerry of buckling to pressure from teachers’ unions that have criticized the law. Mr. Kerry responded last week to the GOP criticism by saying he had a record of standing up to the unions, and said he would continue to place demands on classroom instructors to improve their professional qualifications, as the No Child Left Behind Act requires.
The Democrat’s supporters also said the senator had been steadfast in his criticism of Mr. Bush’s funding of the education law. “I am running for president to hold this president accountable for making a mockery of those words,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement on his web site, referring to the term No Child Left Behind.
President Bush told the audience at Van Buren Elementary, in Arkansas’ 5,000-student Van Buren school district, that critics were far too quick to describe the No Child Left Behind law’s goals as unrealistic and inflexible.
Mr. Bush argued that the law’s requirements that schools make “adequate yearly progress” ensure students can read at grade level, and break down data to show the performance of different student populations are both necessary and fully attainable.
“Some object to regular testing because they believe schools will just teach to the test,” Mr. Bush said. But if a test measures basic educational skills, the president continued, “then teaching to the test means you’re teaching a child the basic knowledge of reading and math.”
The president noted recent regulatory changes his administration has made that are aimed at giving rural schools more flexibility in meeting teacher-quality requirements and granting more leeway in how states and districts measure the progress of students who aren’t proficient in English.
President Bush struck a similar tone on May 12 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and on May 13 at Parkersburg South High School, in the 14,000-student Wood County district in West Virginia, where he described the goals of the No Child Left Behind law as “perfectly reasonable.”
Speaking before an audience of 300 mostly federal employees at the NIH, just outside Washington, Mr. Bush promoted his administration’s Reading First initiative, which provides federal money to states and districts to establish scientific, research-based reading programs in grades K-3.
The president said he chose the venue because of the role that the NIH’s Institute of Child Health and Human Development, or NICHD, has played in shaping state and federal reading policy. He was joined at the event by Secretary of Education Rod Paige and G. Reid Lyon, who oversees reading research for the NICHD, whom Mr. Bush credited with influencing reading initiatives he launched as governor of Texas.
Reginald M. Felton of the National School Boards Association said the president was offering “mixed messages” about the law, by saying it offers flexibility even as it labels successful schools as needing improvement. The administration offered changes only when fiscally squeezed state legislatures and school districts demanded them, he contended.
“Only when [problems] have bubbled up in many states” has the administration been forced to modify portions of No Child Left Behind Act, said Mr. Felton, the Alexandria, Va.- based organization’s director of federal relations.
Associate Editor Kathleen Kennedy Manzo contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Bush Takes On Critics of No Child Left Behind Act