In his first major policy initiative since moving into the White House, President Bush has unveiled a comprehensive education plan that would hold states accountable for student performance based on annual assessments, but would give schools more flexibility in meeting federal regulations.
His plan, which he calls “No Child Left Behind,” also would provide private school vouchers to students in failing Title I schools—a proposal that is sure to meet with opposition from congressional Democrats. But Mr. Bush didn’t dwell on that aspect of his agenda during a White House ceremony on Tuesday; instead, he emphasized his hope that both Democrats and Republicans could work together to improve the nation’s schools.
“This is an important moment for my administration, because we spent so much time campaigning on education reform,” the president said. “It’s time to come together and get it done.”
Many details of the plan are still fuzzy. Although the White House presented the initiative as a legislative proposal, no accompanying bills have been drafted, and it was unclear when that would occur. But the plan states that many of the components could be included in a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which Congress is expected to take up again this year. White House aides also could not provide a cost estimate for the initiative, but they added that more information would be included in the president’s proposed fiscal 2002 budget, which will be released in late February.
Among the most significant features of the plan is a proposal to overhaul the Title I program for disadvantaged students by requiring states to develop systems of rewards and penalties to hold districts and schools accountable for academic progress. That progress would be gauged by annual tests, which would be designed by the state or school district and measure reading and mathematics achievement in grades 3 to 8.
Mr. Bush’s plan also would set up a system for low-performing schools that failed to make adequate progress on the annual tests. First, the schools would receive federal money for technical help; after two years, underperforming schools would undergo corrective action. If a school failed to show adequate progress after three years, its students could use Title I funds to transfer to another public or private school, or to pay for supplemental education services, such as tutoring.
The plan does not promise significant new spending for education, but Mr. Bush vowed to usher in a new level of accountability and flexibility in the use of federal money. He also pledged to continue the federal role in education. “Change will not come by adding a few new federal programs … and change will not come by disdaining or dismantling the federal role,” Mr. Bush said.
But he did propose a new “Reading First” initiative to help states establish comprehensive reading programs. (See the accompanying chart, “‘No Child Left Behind.’”)
The elaborate Jan. 23 ceremony held to unveil President Bush’s plan, complete with military honor guard, took place in the East Room of the White House and was attended by about 100 advisers and representatives from Washington think tanks and other groups. Notably absent were representatives of such major national education groups as the teachers’ unions.
The National Education Association was one group quick to criticize the voucher aspect of Mr. Bush’s plan. “For a new president who has pledged to unite the nation and end bitter bipartisanship, his voucher proposal is sure to divide us,” NEA President Bob Chase said in a statement released before the White House event. The union actively supported Mr. Bush’s Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, in the 2000 presidential race.
But White House press secretary Ari Fleischer downplayed the voucher proposal at a briefing following Mr. Bush’s speech. Mr. Fleischer argued that the proposal was “not what has traditionally been called a voucher plan.” He noted that the voucher component would not be statewide and would provide aid only to a limited number of students.
Tuesday’s announcement of Mr. Bush’s legislative agenda for K-12 schools was part of what the White House is calling “Education Week.” The president and the first lady, Laura Bush, held an event to promote literacy on Monday. Mr. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney planned to tour the Department of Education on Wednesday, after participating in a swearing-in ceremony for Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who was confirmed by the Senate Jan. 20.