President Bush begins the crucial stretch of his bid for a second term with plans to build on the No Child Left Behind Act by expanding educational accountability in the high school grades.
“In our high schools, we will fund early-intervention programs to help students at risk,” the president said as he accepted the Republican nomination here on Sept. 2.
“We will place a new focus on math and science,” he added. “As we make progress, we will require a rigorous exam before graduation.”
Mr. Bush stressed a theme that builds on his signature education program: Upon graduation from high school, students must be ready to go to college or be qualified to step into high-wage jobs.
“In this time of change, most new jobs are filled by people with at least two years of college, yet only about one in four students gets there,” he said.
The new language “builds on the platform set up by No Child Left Behind,” said Tucker Eskew, a senior adviser to the Bush campaign and a former White House aide to Mr. Bush.
But education appears destined to be trumped as a campaign issue by debates over the war in Iraq and terrorism. That was the case last week at the Republican National Convention, which drew thousands of delegates and other party faithful and tens of thousands of protesters to the city that never sleeps.
Though security was the recurring issue for the GOP—as it was for the Democrats who convened in Boston in July—speakers here often struck the theme of education reform, a front-burner issue for Mr. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign.
During the Aug. 30-Sept. 2 convention at Madison Square Garden, Republicans dropped education nuggets throughout evening speeches.
Paige Defends Law
Secretary of Education Rod Paige vigorously defended the No Child Left Behind Act.
“All across America, test scores are rising,” he said during his Aug. 31 speech. “Students are learning. The achievement gap is closing. Teachers and principals are beaming with pride.”
But there’s more work to be done, Mr. Paige said. “We can either build on these achievements,” he said, “or return to the days of excuses and indifference.”
First lady Laura Bush, a former teacher and school librarian, said, “When my husband took office, too many schools were leaving too many children behind, so he worked with Congress to pass sweeping education reform. . We are determined to provide a quality education for every child in America.”
Even Vice President Dick Cheney, who rarely pays public attention to education policy, addressed the topic in his speech. He criticized Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee, over what he claimed was a waffling position on the law.
Sen. Kerry “has, in the last several years, been for the No Child Left Behind Act and against it,” Mr. Cheney contended.
Both Sen. Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, voted for the measure when it passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2001. As a candidate, Mr. Kerry has criticized the Bush administration over its funding of the law.
During convention week, education-minded politicians visited schools around New York City and spread the campaign’s message.
At a gathering to highlight charter schools and choice in education, Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman, whose department oversees the federal school lunch program, talked of going beyond the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
“No Child Left Behind became law, and our schools and our children are now better for it,” Ms. Veneman said. “But President Bush is not content to stop there. . Now the president’s set a new goal: that every high school graduate is ready for work or college.”
While national security overshadowed all other convention issues, education will be a mainstay on the campaign trail, Mr. Eskew said.
Education vs. Security
“Were it not for the war [in Iraq], No Child Left Behind would be one of the most visible pillars of the first term,” he said.
Lindy Forbes, a special education teacher and alternate delegate from Green County, Ky., was neither surprised nor disappointed to see national-security themes dominate the week.
“If you’re not safe, nothing else matters,” she said. “It has to be number one. Most people understand that.”
As the general-election race unfolds, education is unlikely to take center stage, said Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution in Washington. In polls on the issues, he said, education lags way behind national security and the war in Iraq in importance.
“But if this is a very close election,” Mr. Loveless said, “even minor issues could loom important.”
The Democratic assertion that the administration has failed to properly fund the No Child Left Behind Act is one issue on which the challengers have found some traction, Mr. Loveless said.
“The Democrats have been able to make hay over funding issues for No Child Left Behind,” he said. “I think it’s selling right now.”
In his acceptance speech, President Bush briefly alluded to Sen. Kerry’s call for refinement of the law.
“After supporting my education reforms, he now wants to dilute them,” Mr. Bush said.
He said the No Child Left Behind Act is “transforming our schools by raising standards and focusing on results. We’re insisting on accountability, empowering parents and teachers, and making sure that local people are in charge of their schools.”
Mr. Bush also touched on other issues that affect students and learning. He said that, if re-elected, he would lead a new charge to enroll millions of poor children who are eligible but not signed up for the government’s health-insurance programs.
As recently as the 1990s, many Republicans favored abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. Today, President Bush proudly cites his advocacy of the No Child Left Behind Act, a far-reaching law that requires more accountability from schools and imposes sanctions for those that don’t meet standards.
A Need to Tweak?
Though Republicans often press for less government intrusion on a local level, Ms. Forbes said she believes the law resonates with both moderate and conservative members of her party.
“Smaller government, if we can have it, is best,” Ms. Forbes said. “But with education, it’s got to come from the top down. There have to be national standards for students.”
But some conservative Republicans are uncomfortable with that thinking. South Carolina delegate Charlie Condon, a former state attorney general who lost a U.S. Senate primary earlier this year, said voters in his state spoke of problems caused by the law.
“There are some real problems on the ground level,” he said. “The concept is good, but there is a tremendous amount of tweaking needed.”
Reg Weaver, the president of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, who spent convention week here trying to build bridges with GOP officials, said he believed Republicans succeeded at making sure that the No Child Left Behind theme seeped into delegates’ consciousness.
But Mr. Weaver, whose union has endorsed Sen. Kerry for president and has been critical of the education law, said there was much more talk than substance here on education.
“What the public has seen is the name mentioned, . but what has not been done is to talk about the details,” he said. “We want the American public to know there’s more than just a nice, catchy slogan.”
While many delegates played down the impact that union criticism could have on the election, Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware said the opposition should not be underestimated. That resistance, he said, might make it difficult for the GOP to promote its education policies.
“That is the political downside,” said Rep. Castle, who serves on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Partly because of that outspoken opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act, he said, education as an issue for Republicans “would be beneficial, but not overwhelmingly beneficial.”