Bush’s School Agenda Will Get a 2nd Term

By Erik W. Robelen & Michelle R. Davis — November 09, 2004 10 min read
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President Bush will enter his second term with a range of campaign plans on education, from expanded testing demands to new cash awards for effective teachers, only some of which are likely to become law. But one thing is clear: The controversial No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, his signature initiative for schools, is here to stay.

After winning a tight election race with 51 percent of the popular vote, compared with 48 percent for his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the president reiterated his commitment to education in a Nov. 4 press conference.

“We must continue the work of education reform, to bring high standards and accountability not just to our elementary and secondary schools, but to our high schools, as well,” he said.

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See the accompanying table,

Table: Bush on Education

Mr. Bush put noticeably less emphasis on education during his second campaign for the White House, which came against a backdrop of concerns about terrorism and the war in Iraq. Exit-polling data suggested education was far down the list of voters’ most important issues in choosing a president.

Nonetheless, Mr. Bush invoked the bipartisan No Child Left Behind law often, as he did during several campaign stops the day before the election.

“We passed education reforms, good solid education reforms to bring high standards to our classrooms,” he said in the clincher battleground state of Ohio on Nov. 1. “Math and reading scores are now up in America. We’re closing an achievement gap by helping our minority children.”

The federal law has stirred up a lot of passions, from those such as the president who vigorously defend it, to those who believe it needs substantial changes or should be undone altogether. But love it or hate it, no one disputes that the law’s essence will remain with President Bush retaining the White House, and with Republicans enlarging their slim margins of control in the House and the Senate.

Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Delaware Republican who chairs the House Education Reform Subcommittee, said he would not rule out some congressional tinkering with the law next year—as many analysts have predicted—but he said any such changes would not be as much as the law’s critics would wish for.

“There might be things that are done,” Mr. Castle said in an interview on Nov. 3. “But if anyone believes that No Child Left Behind is going to be swept away, or changed significantly, they’re wrong.”

“The next four years are Bush holding tight to No Child Left Behind,” said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, and a former top aide to House Democrats.

It remains unclear whether Secretary of Education Rod Paige will stay on in the president’s next term. Mr. Bush said last week that there would be changes in his Cabinet, but he offered no specifics.

A ‘Blank Canvas’

The future of the federal K-12 law wasn’t always so clear. Signed by President Bush in January 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act reauthorized—and significantly overhauled—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was first passed in 1965 at the urging of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

President Bush convenes a Cabinet meeting on Nov. 4 to discuss the agenda for his second term.

In the heat of the presidential-primary season, the measure—which imposes stiff demands on states and school districts to improve student achievement and upgrade the quality of teachers—became something of a punching bag for the crowded field of Democratic hopefuls. Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, the early frontrunner, led the charge with his vow to “dismantle” the act. But others who sought the Democratic nomination, including Sen. Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, his eventual vice presidential running mate, also jumped into the fray.

During a candidates’ debate in January, Sen. Edwards said his 2001 vote in favor of the law was a mistake. Sen. Kerry called the law, which he also voted for, a “one size fits all” approach and vowed to rewrite its accountability measures. (“‘No Child’ Law Faulted In Democratic Race,” Jan. 14, 2004.)

But the Kerry campaign’s rhetoric on the No Child Left Behind Act shifted considerably after the Massachusetts senator clinched the nomination and headed toward the general election. Sen. Kerry continued to argue that President Bush hasn’t supported adequate funding for the law, but backed off explicit calls to rewrite it. Instead, Mr. Kerry said that the president had mismanaged its implementation, and he vowed that, if elected, he would make it “work for our schools.”

Exactly what he meant, however, was subject to much interpretation, and perhaps wishful thinking, by some Kerry backers.

“A presidential candidate is frequently a blank canvas upon which everybody paints their hopes and dreams,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank aligned with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

But Mr. Rotherham said he believes that those who were hoping Mr. Kerry might make fundamental changes to the law would have been disappointed.

“A Kerry win would not have meant a wild deviation [on education],” he said. “The two campaigns were operating within a fairly narrow bandwidth.”

At the same time, given the strong backing that Sen. Kerry won from the two national teachers’ unions—both of which have been sharply critical of the federal law—he presumably would have faced far more political pressure than President Bush to rethink some of the law’s requirements.

The Bush administration has so far resisted calls to amend the federal statute. The law will come up for reauthorization in 2007, well into his second term.

“It’s as if a tree has been planted that really needs at least another four years of nurture to be secure,” said Sandy Kress, who helped craft the law as a White House education adviser to President Bush and informally advised the re-election campaign. “What No Child Left Behind represents will be continued, will live, will be nurtured, and will be given a chance to make a real difference in the way education works.”

Mr. Kress added: “That’s not to say that administratively and legislatively, there won’t be opportunities to improve and strengthen and make things work smarter and better.”

Reg Weaver, the president of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, which endorsed Sen. Kerry, said he believes the No Child Left Behind law will see some changes during the next Congress.

“I think the question is no longer shall the law be changed,” Mr. Weaver said last week. “I think the question is how it should be changed. … I do believe there are Republicans and Democrats who see that.”

‘Props for the Campaign’

Meanwhile, President Bush has a set of new plans for education, some of which he says are intended to build upon the No Child Left Behind Act.

For one, he would require more high school testing, with assessments in reading and mathematics each year in grades 9-11. Under the current federal law, high schools must test students only once. Mr. Bush also has proposed creating a program to help struggling middle and high school readers.

In addition, the president has said that he wants to establish a new, $200 million pot of money to encourage schools to use 8th grade test data to devise individual performance plans for entering high schoolers.

Furthermore, he has put forward a plan—similar to one proposed by the Kerry campaign—to set up a $500 million Teacher Incentive Fund for states and districts that reward “effective” teachers. The fund would provide cash awards of as much as $5,000 each to 100,000 teachers a year.

Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy called the president’s proposals “campaign rhetoric just to say he had a program.” He said he believed few, if any, would actually be enacted.

“Those things were just props for the campaign,” Mr. Jennings maintained.

If Mr. Bush, however, makes these initiatives a political priority, his stronger majorities in the House and especially the Senate may well help ensure their passage. The party has added four seats to their majority in the Senate and at least four in the House, with one still undecided late last week. (“Congress’ Shift to Right May Be Felt in Schools,” this issue.)

During his press conference last week, Mr. Bush cited education as one of the areas where he expected to see action.

“I’ve earned [political] capital in this election, and I’m going to spend it,” he said. “You’ve heard the agenda: Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror.”

But Kathleen Porter-Magee, the associate research director at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which is generally supportive of the administration’s education agenda, said she thought it would be more difficult for the president to push through some of his new ideas with the kind of strong backing he saw with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“There is more resistance than there was then,” she said. “There was broad bipartisan support, but now when it comes to education, things are a little more polarized.”

Especially as Election Day approached, partisan tensions in Washington had become inflamed.

Leading Democrats have long contended that President Bush broke his “promise” on adequate funding for education, a point he strongly disputes but one that has caused continuing friction. Democrats have also complained about some of the administration’s decisions in implementing the No Child Left Behind law.

Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards,

But last week, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said now is a time for reconciliation after the divisive election.

“Obviously, the results are disappointing,” he said in a Nov. 3 statement. “But I’m very hopeful that we can work together with President Bush to heal the divisions in America and make real progress for America’s future.”

President Bush, in his Nov. 3 victory speech to supporters after Sen. Kerry conceded defeat, said, “[T]oday I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent: To make this nation stronger and better I will need your support, and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust. A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation.”

Some analysts expect Mr. Bush and Republicans in Congress to press hard to expand federal support for private school vouchers over the next four years. The first such federal program, a pilot plan in the District of Columbia, was enacted earlier this year.

The president for three consecutive years now has proposed a $50 million program for vouchers and other school choice pilot programs across the country, but Congress has never provided money for it.

Another contentious issue in President Bush’s second term will likely be setting federal spending levels for education.

A Responsibility to Govern

During the campaign, Sen. Kerry repeatedly argued that the president was shortchanging the federal education budget.

Sen. Kerry had promised to spend an additional $200 billion over 10 years on education programs. And while that figure may have been overambitious, it seems likely that the Democrat would have pressed for higher levels of spending on education than President Bush has.

Federal education aid has grown dramatically since President Bush entered the White House in 2001, in part because each year Congress has provided more than Mr. Bush’s request.

If the president’s most recent budget request is any indication, he’s hoping to slow the growth rate. His Department of Education budget plan for fiscal 2005, which began Oct. 1, would provide an increase of $1.7 billion, or 3 percent, to a total of $57.3 billion in discretionary spending. Congress has not yet completed work on a 2005 appropriation for education.

Ultimately, when it comes to debates on the budget, education policy, and other matters, the election results—with Mr. Bush’s popular-vote as well as electoral-vote majority and the GOP gains in Congress—handed Republicans both a real opportunity and a heavy responsibility.

“I think that we as a party have a responsibility to govern,” Rep. Castle said. “If things don’t happen now, it’s going to be the fault of Republicans. Our leadership … needs to get together and have an agenda that’s meaningful and is going to help the people.”

“If not,” Mr. Castle said, in coming elections “there’s going to be the normal retribution.”


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