‘No Child’ Law Remains at Top of Bush Record

October 01, 2004 10 min read
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A month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush invited four senior lawmakers to the White House—two Republicans and two Democrats. Although national security surely was the most pressing issue on the president’s mind, this talk in the Oval Office wasn’t about protecting the homeland or fighting terrorists overseas. It was about education.

Mr. Bush wanted to re-emphasize in person his desire to see Congress complete work that year on one of his top domestic priorities—a major school initiative—and to check on the progress. And the lawmakers present, the top Republican and Democrat on both the House and Senate education committees, reiterated their determination to get the job done.

See Also

See an accompanying table,

The Bush Administration and Education

Read a related story from this issue,

Bush Touts Spending He Never Proposed

It wasn’t the last time they would all meet over the next two months. And shortly before Christmas 2001, less than a year after the president came to office, Congress delivered. Overwhelming majorities in both chambers backed what is arguably the most far-reaching federal education law in U.S. history.

The No Child Left Behind Act has been the hallmark of President Bush’s education agenda and one of his most-touted domestic achievements as he campaigns for a second term. The law has a lot of fingerprints on it, but many of the core elements—such as increased testing, tough demands for improved student achievement, and new educational options for students in low-performing schools—reflect ideas in Mr. Bush’s original proposal.

On the hustings this fall, the president regularly emphasizes his record on education, especially the K-12 law—a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“We’re making great progress; we’re closing the achievement gap,” Mr. Bush said last week at an event billed as an education forum in King of Prussia, Pa. “We’ll continue to insist upon strong accountability, and we’re not turning back.”

That vow should come as little surprise. After all, Mr. Bush has sought perhaps as much as any other president to leave his mark on education.

But his actions have generated often-fierce controversy.

The law that he pushed so hard to enact has drawn widespread criticism. And the same Democrats who helped write it have blasted the president over spending for schools—they say he doesn’t support adequate amounts—as well as key decisions on implementing the statute.

Meanwhile, federal leaders have a long list of overdue legislation for reauthorizing other major education programs. Critics say the president hasn’t provided the leadership to help push them through Congress.

Mr. Bush’s record, like that of any president, is a matter of perspective.

“This is an authentic mission that the president has undertaken, and I think irreversibly changed the culture of K-12 education,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in an interview last week. “I don’t think it will ever … go back to the time when we did not focus on results.”

But when Rep. George Miller of California, a principal Democratic architect of the No Child Left Behind Act, looks back over the past 3½ years of the Bush administration, he sees a different legacy.

Mr. Miller acknowledges the leadership the president exercised when it came to enacting the federal school law. But he points to issues such as funding and the failure to see final action on other major education bills as evidence that Mr. Bush did not follow through after enactment of the No Child Left Behind law.

“The tragedy is that [the law] wasn’t then built on,” Mr. Miller said. “It really has been a wasted opportunity. … With passage, he essentially exited the field.”

Early in his 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush, then the governor of Texas, made clear that education would be a top issue. That alone was striking for a Republican candidate, as the 1996 gop platform had called for abolishing the Department of Education.

Building on 1994 Law

Mr. Bush wasn’t talking about just a few new programs. He wanted a muscular federal role in schooling, bringing together ideas from Texas and elsewhere, including those advanced by centrist Democrats.

His plan in some respects built on changes in the esea that Congress enacted in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, which emphasized getting states to set high standards and develop testing systems aligned with those standards. A central element of Mr. Bush’s plan was to apply much greater pressure on states and school districts to improve student achievement not just overall, but for subgroups of students who have historically struggled, such as African-American and Latino students.

The No Child Left Behind Act may well have been a “Nixon goes to China” event.

“If President Clinton had sent the exact same [plan] to Congress, the Republicans would have ripped it apart,” said Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association.

Three days after his inauguration, President Bush unveiled his plan, which was far less detailed than some expected. He never

offered legislative language, but rather a 23-page summary.

Beyond the political gymnastics needed to negotiate myriad details, and to persuade both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in Congress to get on board, there were unexpected wrinkles along the way.

In May 2001, before the Senate passed its original bill, control of the narrowly divided chamber suddenly was handed to the Democrats when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the chairman of the education committee, announced that he was quitting the Republican Party.

And then, on Sept. 11, Americans awoke in shock to learn that terrorists had hijacked airplanes to use as mobile weapons.

Despite such upheaval, Congress finished the education bill in 11 months—lightning speed on such sprawling legislation.

Of course, the president didn’t get everything he wanted. For instance, he had to drop two measures dear to conservatives: private school vouchers for students in low-performing schools, and a provision to allow states or districts to convert much of their federal aid into a block grant.

In some cases, Mr. Bush got more than he bargained for. For example, the demands for schools to make adequate yearly progress—the law’s central accountability measure—were more stringent than what the president originally had in mind.

“It ended up being a big old compromise,” said Sandy Kress, a former education adviser to the president who helped write the law. “AYP has a lot of parents.”

That said, the final bill contained core features of Mr. Bush’s original initiative, such as more testing, greater accountability, and a focus on research-based instruction.

A ‘Big Distance’

But the bipartisan honeymoon didn’t last. Weeks after Mr. Miller and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., then the chairman of the Senate education committee, stood by Mr. Bush as he signed the legislation in January 2002, they attacked his education spending request.

That scuffle over money continues to this day.

Democrats routinely blast Mr. Bush for not meeting the levels authorized for key programs under the federal school law.

“Since the law passed, the country has seen the promise of funding No Child Left Behind flagrantly broken by the Bush administration, time and time again,” Mr. Kennedy said this month on the Senate floor.

The president and his allies point out that education spending has increased dramatically since Mr. Bush entered office. And both Mr. Kress and Secretary Paige dispute the notion that the president has broken any promise. (“Bush Touts Spending He Never Proposed,” this issue.)

Another big point of contention is the Education Department’s decisions on how to carry out certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

From the beginning, Secretary Paige made clear that his department, while promising to be a “partner” with states and districts, would be serious about enforcing the new law. After all, many states were still well behind in complying with the 1994 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“[We decided] we’re going to carry out the congressional intent of the law, because heretofore, nobody has stayed the course,” Mr. Paige said last week.

For a long time, the administration faced widespread criticism that it was applying a rigid approach to interpreting the law, and in some cases sending mixed signals to states. Last December, the Education Department announced the first in a series of regulatory changes that generally won praise from state and local officials, even if many such officials say the agency needs to go even further in granting flexibility.

At the same time, the administration has resisted efforts to amend the law.

On the law’s second anniversary this past January, a group of leading Democrats, including Rep. Miller and Sen. Kennedy, wrote a sharply worded missive to Secretary Paige outlining their frustrations with the implementation process. Many of those complaints were echoed in legislation that Sen. Kennedy recently introduced to amend the law. He said in introducing the measure that the administration had “crippled reforms through its ineffective implementation effort.”

For some critics, though, the bigger problem is the law itself, which has drawn fire from all sides, including many Republican state legislators. They have said the law usurps local control, imposes unrealistic demands on schools, and relies too heavily on standardized testing, to name a few common complaints.

In part to counter such attacks, senior Education Department officials often fan out across the country to defend and promote the federal law.

The nea’s Mr. Packer suggests those efforts may have distracted the administration from directing more focus to other pressing issues in education policy.

School Vouchers

It is striking how much unfinished education business stands before Congress. Major bills to reauthorize programs for higher education, Head Start, vocational education, and special education are overdue.

There’s plenty of fingerpointing in Washington. Democrats blame Republicans and vice versa.

But the No Child Left Behind Act stands as Exhibit A that when President Bush is determined to get an education bill passed, he can make it happen.

Exhibit B is school vouchers. While vouchers were stripped out of the No Child Left Behind bill, the president this year signed into law the first federal program of private school vouchers, a pilot that helps low-income students in the District of Columbia transfer out of public schools.

The White House worked hard to win passage of the program, which Republican lawmakers had sought unsuccessfully for years.

It’s also striking how, at least in the House, lawmakers have mov ed away from the broadly bipartisan approach on No Child Left Behind. When the chamber pass ed a bill to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in April 2003, most Demo crats voted no. And a House bill to revamp the Head Start program passed in July of that year by one vote, 217-216, with no Democratic backing.

“I’d say the atmosphere is pretty toxic,” Mr. Miller said. The Bush administration has “decided they don’t need partners any longer. … I certainly wouldn’t buy a horse from them again,” he said.

Congress has taken a few modest steps in education policymaking since the adoption of the No Child Left Behind law. It passed a bill to overhaul federal education research programs.

And just last week, after a partisan standoff, the Senate announced that it was prepared to enter negotiations with the House over a bill to reauthorize the main special education law.

Secretary Paige pointed to several factors to help explain the failure to complete so many education bills, such as big disagreements over much of the legislation and other pressing matters in Washington, from the war on terrorism to health care and jobs. The election also complicates matters.

“I do not think that there is any lack of interest, or lack of emphasis by the president,” he said.

Despite the debate over the Bush record, one thing seems clear: He has shifted the landscape when it comes to education.

“It’s no longer about whether there is a significant federal role,” said Christopher T. Cross, a consultant and a former assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush. “He’s changed that context entirely.”


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