Bush’s High School Agenda Faces Obstacles

February 08, 2005 8 min read
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A cornerstone of President Bush’s second-term agenda for education—imposing greater accountability in high schools through more testing—appears likely to face serious political and practical challenges that some observers argue could imperil the plan.

Mr. Bush first announced the plan for extra testing during his 2004 campaign. Since his re-election, he has made clear that this and other aspects of his high school agenda remain a high priority.

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Table: President’s High School Agenda

And yet, early signals suggest the president may have a tough time marshaling the kind of broad, bipartisan support he achieved early in his first term with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Some leading Democrats appear skeptical of Mr. Bush’s plans, citing their frustration with education funding levels they deem inadequate to meet the current demands of federal law.

“This proposal for high school, regardless of what merits it might or might not have, will encounter stiff resistance in Congress and in the country until President Bush fulfills the commitments that have already been made to our public schools,” Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement last month. “Adding new mandates while schools lack the resources to meet the current demands will not help schools.”

President Bush shakes hands with members of Congress after his Feb. 2 State of the Union Address, in which he cited his accountability plan for high schools.

The resistance may not be solely partisan. Some conservative Republicans who were not big fans of the No Child Left Behind law to begin with may balk at more federal mandates. Even key GOP leaders in Congress on education, while not saying they’re opposed to the high school agenda, haven’t exactly warmly embraced the idea.

Beyond the political issues lie other potential barriers.

For one, since most high schools don’t receive federal aid under Title I—the flagship program for disadvantaged students under the No Child Left Behind Act—more testing would not necessarily lead to the kind of accountability the president wants.

Currently, schools that don’t receive Title I aid are not subject to the law’s specific consequences for low-performing schools, such as allowing students to transfer to a higher-performing public school or get free tutoring.

The Department of Education declined to comment for this story.

A ‘Plausible’ Goal?

President Bush made improving high schools a key idea in his re-election bid. He often touted the No Child Left Behind Act—a signature achievement of his first four years that overhauled the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—and vowed to bring a greater emphasis to high schools in his second term.

Last month, he reiterated that plan and offered more details, proposing to target $1.5 billion to his new high school initiative. Some $250 million of that would be reserved for helping states expand high school testing, and $1.2 billion would help states hold high schools accountable and intervene with students not learning at grade level. (“Bush Promotes Plan for High School Tests,” Jan. 19, 2005.)

The White House hinted that it would divert funds from existing Department of Education programs to pay for at least part—and possibly all—of the high school plans. Further details were expected this week when Mr. Bush unveils his budget request for fiscal 2006, though there’s widespread speculation that much of the money would come from the agency’s politically popular vocational education programs.

“[W]e need to be sure that high school students are learning every year,” the president said at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Va., on Jan. 12. “Listen, I’ve heard every excuse in the book not to test. My answer is, how do you know if a child is learning if you don’t test.”

The No Child Left Behind law requires all public schools to test students annually in grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics, and once in high school. The new plan would call for testing in both subjects in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. Administration aides have said the tests would be phased in, and likely wouldn’t begin until the 2009-10 school year.

The vast majority of states do not now administer statewide English and math tests each year in 9th, 10th, and 11th grades, according to data gathered by the Education Week Research Center.

Thomas E. Mann, an expert on politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said he expects Mr. Bush’s testing plan to face an uphill struggle on Capitol Hill, with resistance not just from Democrats, who may see little to gain in cooperating, but also from some Republicans.

“I think in general, they are not going to be thrilled with this,” he said of GOP lawmakers.

At the same time, Mr. Mann said no one should write off the president’s initiative.

“Among his very ambitious items, this is one of the more plausible and doable, certainly compared to Social Security reform, tax reform, reducing the deficit in half, establishing democracy in the Middle East,” he said.

“There’s going to be more pressure for changes in No Child Left Behind, as opposed to extending it to more grades,” predicted Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist with the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union and a group that frequently criticizes the federal law.

Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 100 conservative House members, said at a January press briefing that he wanted to “reverse the expanding federal role in primary and secondary education, which conservatives believe is a state and local function,” according to the Associated Press.

Money alone could be a big obstacle for Mr. Bush. Last year, given tight fiscal constraints, Congress showed little appetite for some of the president’s initiatives. Lawmakers, for example, rejected his plan to provide enhanced Pell Grants for college to needy students who pursue a rigorous high school curriculum. Congress also chopped his $100 million request for the Striving Readers initiative—which seeks to help struggling middle and high school readers—to $25 million.

For fiscal 2006, President Bush has said he wants $200 million for Striving Readers and $250 million for the new high school testing, among other items.

But without a significant increase in overall Education Department funding—and one is not expected in his 2006 request—getting federal lawmakers to reserve $250 million for high school tests won’t be easy.

Still, some analysts suggest the administration may have one persuasive factor in its favor: the new secretary of education, Margaret Spellings. Formerly the president’s top domestic-policy aide, she’s considered to possess the political savvy and good relationships with lawmakers that could help the fate of the testing plans on Capitol Hill.

The Republican leaders of the House and Senate education committees seemed cautious when asked last month about the president’s new testing plans.

“This proposal will spark a healthy debate in the United States Congress,” Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in an interview that he has many questions about the plan.

“How do we institute it, how do we do it?” he said. But he said he was open to the idea.

“It may have to be incremental; it may take a little while to get imposed,” Sen. Enzi said. “I could be supportive of two more years of testing. We need to make sure that it’s put in at the proper stage, though.”

‘Nourish Them Now’

Some education leaders question the value of still more testing, even while welcoming Mr. Bush’s attention to high schools.

“I have a whole plethora of statistics that already tell us that 9th and 10th graders have a number of problems,” said Gerald M. Tirozzi, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals, who was an assistant secretary of education during the Clinton administration. “We need to nourish them now and address problems. Why spend all that new money on testing?”

Edgar B. Hatrick, the superintendent of the 45,000-student Loudoun County school district in Virginia, said he would like to see the president “work on refining No Child Left Behind and its testing requirements” before expanding the demands in high school. He also said the law needed to be better funded before Congress mandates more tests.

Peter McWalters, Rhode Island’s education commissioner, said he’s a strong supporter of testing tied to accountability, but he questioned the need for the extra high school assessments.

“I have what I need to know a school is not effective or needs intervention,” said Mr. McWalters, whose state currently has statewide high school assessments for reading and math only in 11th grade. “The issue of more testing is more useful testing at the student level.”

Mr. McWalters said that what’s needed are the kind of local tests that closely gauge the progress of individual students and provide speedy feedback for educators to intervene, something his state is now working on with some districts.

Another issue is whether more high school testing would be reliable for judging schools. Several experts said teenagers may not give such tests their all unless the tests are linked to graduation or college admissions.

“A lot of kids, they’re not going to take it seriously,” said William J. Erpenbach, an education consultant based in Madison, Wis. “Anything connected with state testing programs, they could care less.”

Furthermore, while President Bush sees the expanded testing as linked to accountability, under current law most high schools would not face the core consequences for low performance spelled out in the No Child Left Behind Act. That’s largely because most school districts, with limited Title I funds, usually first target the aid to elementary and middle schools. Indeed, several superintendents interviewed for this story said none of their high schools receives Title I aid.

At a December forum at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, a White House aide said Mr. Bush envisions the extra tests counting for accountability purposes under the law.

“We’ll have to work with Congress [on] … exactly how we might want to engage some of those consequences at the high school level to go beyond those schools that receive Title I dollars,” said David Dunn, who has since become Secretary Spellings’ chief of staff in the Education Department.

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Bush’s High School Agenda Faces Obstacles


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