President Bush accepted his party’s nomination for president with a promise to improve the nation’s high schools by pushing the same kinds of reforms he has supported at various grade levels under the sweeping mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Unlike many of the speeches offered earlier in the week at the Republican National Convention, the president’s Sept. 2 speech, which lasted slighted more than one hour, was relatively forward-looking about education and other topics. But as was the case throughout the GOP gathering, school issues received far less attention in the president’s address—only about five minutes—than did foreign policy issues and discussion of combating terrorism.
Mr. Bush touted the No Child Left Behind Act, the bipartisan law he signed in 2002, as having successfully raised academic standards in schools nationwide. And he vowed to extend the law’s commitment to higher academic standards, making sure more high school students were prepared for higher education and the workforce.
• Highlighting President Bush’s prime-time speech, the presence of silent protesters, as well as some celebrity sightings, staff writer Michelle Davis files her final report from the GOP convention. (3:28) Windows Media format | MP3 format
•Staff writer Michelle Davis reports on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s appearance at a public elementary school in Harlem, and the upcoming address Thursday evening by President Bush. (2:30) Windows Media format | MP3 format
“We are making progress, and there is more to do,” Mr. Bush said. “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.”
The president promised, if re-elected, to fund programs for at-risk high school students, and place a renewed emphasis on the teaching of mathematics and science. He also promised to require that students pass a rigorous exam before graduation from high school.
Mr. Bush also called the No Child Left Behind law “the most important federal education reform in history,” and said that its mandates were bringing positive changes for poor and disadvantaged students.
“America’s schools are getting better, and nothing will hold us back,” he said. The law, which passed Congress with bipartisan support in 2001, requires schools to regularly test students, particularly at early grade levels, and make sure that those students make “adequate yearly progress,” with the goal of having all students proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014.
The president did not offer specifics on how he would implement his proposals in high schools. Twenty-four states already have “exit exams” or tests that students are required to take before receiving a standard high school diploma.
Mr. Bush also vowed to expand the Pell Grant program to more low- and middle-income students, which would “help more Americans to start their career with a college diploma.” Overall funding for Pell Grants has risen under the president’s administration, though critics note that the maximum grant has remained stagnant at $4,050 a year, and that the federal program has lost much of its purchasing power over time, as college tuition costs have risen.
The attention paid to high school student performance pleased Ohio delegate Nancy Patterson, who said students who left K-12 unprepared ended up costing states and colleges money.
“They’re graduating from high schools without the skills they need,” said Ms. Patterson, a retired teacher from Chesterland, Ohio. "[Universities] are having to pay a lot of money to do that. What a waste of time.”
Heading into the final day of the Republican convention, President Bush’s record on fighting terrorism had overshadowed most of his party’s message on other issues, including its platform for improving the nation’s schools. But when top White House political adviser Karl Rove was asked how big a role education would during the rest of his boss’ 2004 campaign, his response was direct.
“Big,” Mr. Rove told a reporter, as he strode off the convention floor a few hours before the president was to address the nation in prime time. “Just wait for tonight.”
But in the president’s speech, education played a secondary role, as it did throughout much of the convention, with most of the prime-time speakers devoting only bits and pieces of their national addresses to school issues. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who spoke on the second night of the GOP gathering, received polite if somewhat restrained applause during an address that lasted a little over six minutes. (“Paige Champions Education Law in Prime-Time Convention Spot,” Sept. 1, 2004.)
Recounting his upbringing in the segregated American South, the education secretary described the No Child Left Behind law as crucial to helping improve the status of poor and minority students across the country. In his speech, the education secretary noted that the Bush administration has increased overall federal education spending and Title I funding for students in low-income communities, in answer to critics’ claims that the education is underfunded.
Vice President Dick Cheney, in his speech on Sept. 1, said that the administration was committed to ending the process of “shuffling too many children from grade to grade without giving them the skills to succeed.”
Mr. Cheney also accused Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts of changing his position on the No Child Left Behind Act, during a week when GOP officials repeatedly suggested the Democratic candidate had reversed himself on foreign-policy issues. Sen. Kerry voted for the bipartisan law as a congressman, and he has supported it since, though he has charged Mr. Bush with failing to fund it by several billion dollars.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Josh Earnest called Mr. Cheney’s comments a “smear,” and said the GOP had dodged education issues at the convention, with good reason. “All week, Republicans have not talked about George W. Bush’s education record, because it’s been a failure,” Mr. Earnest said. “The state of education right now is that schools are crumbling and tuition is going through the roof. George Bush does not have a plan to address those issues.”
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Republican leaders in the White House and Congress called for the federal government to play a minimal role in education policy, with some even suggesting dismantling the U.S. Department of Education entirely. But delegates to this year’s convention said they had embraced their party’s turnabout on school issues.
“Maybe we’ve seen the light,” said delegate Cecelia Taylor, a special education teacher from Thomasville, N.C., with a chuckle. “We’re just coming to the realization that if you want society to work as a whole, you’ve got to educate kids.”
Ms. Taylor, who teaches high school, said Republicans had an opportunity with the No Child Left Behind Act, and other school reforms, to distinguish their ideology from that of Democrats. “When Democrats [implement] social programs for minority kids, it’s just another way [to] chain youth where they can’t get out and improve themselves,” she said. “Republicans want to give you a hand-up, not a hand-out.”
Like some Republican attendees to the convention, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said he believed the president had helped make education an issue that voters associated with the GOP, rather than Democrats.
“I don’t know if we’ve taken it from them,” he said, “but this was an issue that was so dominated by Democrats, if we can even break even ... we’ll do well.”
In his speech, the president also cited rising test scores in schools across the country as evidence that the reforms of the No Child Left Behind law are working. Sen. Santorum said he had seen similar progress in his state, but he conceded that as a conservative, he still had some reservations about the heavy federal role in driving education policy. “I’m not looking for another major education initiative where we’re telling schools what do to,” the senator said.
But Ms. Patterson saw the president’s advocacy for the No Child Left Behind Act as a positive sign for Republicans. “There’s a more compassionate component getting the ear of those doing [our] education policy,” she said. “It’s Bush’s issue. He’s made it a priority.”