Bush Plan Fails Schools


Five years ago the
Republican presidential candidate campaigned to abolish the Department of
Education and drastically cut back the federal role in education. This year a
new Republican president is pledging to dramatically expand the federal role
in education and make it his number one domestic priority. Unfortunately,
change and progress are very different things.

Large areas of
bipartisan agreement between George W. Bush and Congressional Democrats make
passage of significant new federal education legislation likely this year. But
it’s virtually certain that such legislation will not include the resources
and programs needed to make dramatic improvements in school districts around
the nation. Instead, education advocates will have their work cut out for them
fighting to put better options like more dollars and targeted classroom
supports into the potential federal package, and keeping the worst ones,
vouchers and more tests, out.

The key battle
will be over Bush’s proposal to tie federal aid tightly to mandated annual
testing. But the Administration is also seeking to end the 35-year history of
“Great Society-style education policies,” in the words of one of the
president’s many ideologically charged education advisors. With every major
federal education program, Title I, the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the National Assessment
of Educational Progress, and Head Start, up for reauthorization in the near
future, Bush’s highly touted plan is the opening salvo in an effort to
redefine federal education policy in new, conservative directions.

For a dubiously
elected president who comes into office with historically low levels of
support among African Americans, and a well-deserved anti-poor, pro-business
image, education is an “outreach” issue. It’s one of the few areas that allows
Bush to posture, however disingenuously, as an ally of poor communities of
color, particularly those that have been badly served by public education.

During his
campaign, Bush railed against the “soft bigotry of low expectations” to
promote a school reform strategy based on punitive high stakes testing. Now in
office, he has appropriated the slogan of the Children’s Defense Fund, “Leave
No Child Behind” as the motto of a 28-page position paper on remaking the
federal role in education. By focusing on the lowest performing schools and
the racial dimensions of the achievement gap, Bush gives his education
rhetoric an edge and an urgency it would otherwise lack. However, he uses this
rhetoric to frame policy proposals for vouchers and high stakes tests that
would actually reinforce the “hard bigotry” of institutional racism in
education, for example, by promoting more tracking, higher dropout rates, and
persistent funding inequities. In fact, combining rhetorical concern for the
victims of inequality with polices that perpetuate it may be an operative
definition of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”



Leave No
Child Untested

Although Bush’s policy
paper left out key details like budget figures it staked out positions that
will shape debate over the federal education agenda. They include:

  • A call for annual
    federally mandated testing in 3rd through 8th grades in reading and math.
    This call to leave no child untested could dramatically impact states and
    school districts already sagging under expanded testing mandates The
    restructuring of dozens of federal programs, many targeted to specific needs
    like class-size reduction and after school programs, into general categories
    of bloc aid that states can use with more flexibility, and less concern for
    equity, to “improve student achievement” (i.e., raise test scores)
  • An overhaul of Title I,
    the largest federal education program, that would allow the introduction of
    a voucher system to encourage students to “seek other options” including
    private or religious schools
  • An expanded early
    childhood reading initiative that would fund a limited range of
    phonics-based approaches to reading instruction
  • Increased funds and
    support for charter schools
  • Reduced support for
    bilingual education, and a requirement that non-English speaking students
    receive instruction entirely in English within three years of entering the
    school system

With the
exception of the voucher proposal, Bush’s plan generally drew high praise from
Congressional Democrats. Senator Ted Kennedy gushed about “overwhelming areas
of agreement.” Senator Joseph Lieberman, who released his own “Three Rest”
education package, said there was maybe “80 percent agreement” with the
president. Even Major Owens, a member of the Black Congressional Caucus from
New York, and a supporter of the Miller-Kildee House bill (HR 340) that is a
liberal alternative to the Bush plan (see below), said he thought there was
maybe “75 percent agreement.” Given the partisan polarization that kept the
last Congress from reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
for the first time since the mid-1960s, this reaction suggests the likelihood
of an early compromise despite significant differences on details.

Vouchers remain
a major area of political division, but are not likely to block a legislative
deal. Bush’s proposal to give students in poor schools $1,500 vouchers if test
scores don’t increase within three years has political and ideological uses.
It redeems a promise to his conservative base and promotes the fiction that
vouchers are a strategy to empower poor parents. But as a “school improvement
strategy,” federally subsidized voucher proposals remain a marginal
ideological issue. At just 7 percent of all school spending, the impact of
federal funds in this area is limited and largely symbolic, and at $1,500, the
president’s vouchers would scarcely finance transportation costs let alone pay
tuition for the few families that might buy their way into private schools
(ironically assuring that many thousands of other children would be “left
behind” in abandoned public schools).

Ultimately, the
real voucher battle is likely to be determined by the same Supreme Court that
installed Bush as president. It will eventually have to rule on how far states
can go in funneling public funds to private and religious schools through
vouchers, and that decision will send the issue back to state legislatures for
further battles.

With Congress
divided, Bush seems resigned to limited efforts to keep vouchers in the mix,
while he pursues more attainable privatization goals by promoting charter
schools and tuition tax credits.

According to
the Atlanta Journal Constitution (February 1) Bush met with Catholic
school leaders and inadvertently spoke in a “more direct, candid way than he
does in public when talking about the controversial issues of abortion and
school vouchers.” Noting that, “audio of the closed meeting was inadvertently
fed into the White House press room,” the paper reported that Bush talked
about the need to make vouchers more attractive to voters, who have defeated
every state voucher initiative that has been on the ballot. “Those of us who
agree on these issues must figure out better ways to position from a PR
perspective,” Bush told Catholic leaders in what he apparently thought was a
private session. “Vouchers is the wrong word. It ought to be opportunity
scholarships or freedom initiatives or something.” The president said that he
might have to settle for a demonstration voucher program in the Washington, DC
public schools.

Bush has higher
hopes for charter schools and tuition tax credits. A significant increase in
funding for charter schools will certainly be sought. The Lieberman bill
already proposes $200 million for charters and interdistrict choice plans.
While charters and public school choice may be legitimate parts of school
improvement strategies, at the level of state and federal policy they
invariably compete with efforts to target resources to the neediest public
schools or to promote general improvement for all schools. Pockets of
privilege, new forms of tracking, selective admissions policies, and elite
magnet schools are problematic aspects of charter and choice plans that can
signal further retreat from the broad commitments required to serve all
children well.

Similarly, Bush
is proposing tax credits for private school tuition that some call a “back
door” voucher plan. His proposals would allow families with incomes up to
$160,000 a year to put $5,000 annually in tax-free “education savings
accounts” that could be used for tuition at private or religious schools. The
result could be billions in lost tax revenues and subsidies for private
tuition. Many Democrats, like Lieberman, who oppose vouchers, nevertheless
support such tax breaks.

Another area of
overlap with Congressional Democrats, albeit with some limits, involves
collapsing dozens of federal programs into a pool of money that states could
use with “flexibility.” Bush would lump targeted federal funds for class-size
reduction, professional development, after-school programs, drug and safety
education, e-rate technology subsidies and school renovation into a single
pool that states could access in return for “accountability results” (i.e.
higher test scores). Bush would also expand “charter state” agreements whereby
states enter into performance agreements with the Dept of Education that free
them from regulatory requirements, presumably including civil rights and
equity protections, again in exchange for meeting testing goals. Although the
Lieberman bill would target more federal funds to poor schools, it too would
consolidate federal programs into “five, goal- oriented titles” that “demand
measurable progress from states.”

By contrast,
the House bill sponsored by George Miller (D-CA) and Dale Kildee (R-MI) would
continue more targeted programs such as the e-rate, class-size reduction and
after school programs. Miller cited, “the history of reduced funding and
weakened accountability that comes with block grants.” Miller’s bill also
rejects Bush’s three-year limit on bilingual instruction which Rep. Ciro
Rodriguez from San Antonio called “strictly a political decision, it is not a
pedagogical decision.”

legislation would provide $110 billion in new spending over five years,
compared to the $1.6 billion increase that Bush said he would seek for next
year. Miller called the figures released by Bush in late February “very
disappointing,” noting that they represented “a smaller increase than
education received from Congress in four of the last five years.”


Testing Mania

But it is Bush’s call
for annual testing that is drawing the most immediate alarm from education
advocates. Though such testing is not an explicit part of either the Miller or
Lieberman alternatives, Miller has said he supports it, and both Democratic
plans invoke accountability rhetoric that makes accommodation to Bush’s
efforts to tie federal aid to test scores a real possibility. In fact, years
of promoting standards and tests by the Clinton administration and Democrats
in Congress and state houses has helped lay the groundwork for Bush’s plan.
But where Clinton pushed unsuccessfully for creating national tests, the Bush
plan would require individual states to dramatically expand and reshape their
own testing programs.

Less than a
third of all states currently test students in reading and math every year.
Most states would have to add new annual tests, while deciding what to do with
their existing test programs, particularly those in other subjects like
science and social studies that could get pushed aside.

Linking federal
funds and sanctions to test scores will also turn more tests from diagnostic
tools into “high stakes” exams. As happened in Texas, such policies will
encourage narrowly targeted test coaching and curriculum pollution. Even where
these strategies boost short-term results, the progress is often illusory. For
example, the highly-publicized gains on Bush’s Texas Assessment of Academic
Skills, on which much of his reputation as a successful education reformer is
based, did not show up on other measures of achievement like the National
Assessment of Educational Progress, the major federal testing project (whose
own independent diagnostic value would be seriously compromised by the Bush
plan). One can also expect more cheating scandals, and more pushout and
retention polices that manipulate test results in significant ways, as was the
case in Texas.

Calling the
Bush plan “a major threat to assessment reform efforts that will particularly
harm poor children,” FairTest Executive Director Monty Neill declared, “This
unnecessary and unhelpful federal intrusion into the process of school reform
will force more states to direct resources toward turning schools into
test-prep programs. Yet research has demonstrated that the states which
administer the most tests and attach the highest consequences to them tend to
have the weakest education programs.”

Bush’s testing regimen will be a major legislative battle. In the past, much
of the opposition to national tests and standards reflected resistance to
creation of a national curriculum. Bush’s reliance on state tests, and some
flexibility in letting states implement the program could diffuse this
opposition. While Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) has announced plans to
introduce a “Fair and Accurate Testing” bill that would challenge many of the
worst testing practices, many other Democrats have long embraced the
simplistic equation of accountability and achievement with testing and may
back Bush’s proposals.

Educators and
researchers know that test scores alone provide a very limited picture of
educational success or failure. Multiple measures of academic performance,
classroom observations, project- and portfolio-based assessments, a range of
indicators from attendance and drop-out rates to graduation rates and
post-graduation success, measures of teacher preparation and quality,
indicators of parent participation and satisfaction are all needed if the goal
is to assess the effectiveness of a particular school or education program. In
addition, legitimate assessment strategies would measure “opportunity to
learn” inputs and equity of resources so that the victims of educational
failure were not the only ones to face “high stakes” consequences.

But if the goal
is a political one: to posture about “getting tough,” to justify disinvestment
in the most struggling schools, to drive multicultural curriculum reforms,
equity concerns, and more pluralistic, bottom-up approaches to school reform
out of the system, then standardized tests may do just fine.



Such uses of testing in
the service of larger, ideologically driven policy objectives is exactly what
some of Bush’s education advisors are proposing. Nina Shokraii Rees, a former
Heritage Foundation researcher and current advisor to Vice President Dick
Cheney, sees an opening to remake federal policy on a broad scale. “Standards,
choice, and fiscal and legal autonomy in exchange for boosting student test
scores increasingly are the watchwords of education reform in America,” Rees
has written. “The principle can be used in programs that apply to whole
districts as well as entire states. Importantly, it lays the groundwork for a
massive overhaul of education at the federal level in much the same way that
welfare reform began.”

longtime conservative school warriors, Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch have
urged the Bush administration to remember that “today’s great challenge” is
“not expanding access or delivering services. It is boosting student
performance.” They suggest “guiding principles” such as “offer[ing] freedom in
return for results—[and] power to the people—Washington should reign in
monopolies and protect the interests of consumers—in this case children and
parents.” The Administration should “fund children not institutions” and “use
the bully pulpit” to “speak on behalf of needy children and their families.”
For the Republican administration these guidelines translate into using
populist rhetoric to attack teachers unions, promote market-driven reform and
privatization plans, and to attack the very idea of universal public education
as a “monopoly” that should be broken up—all in the name of helping the poor.

How effective
such ideologically driven efforts will be remains to be seen. To some extent
they will be undercut by the pitiful inadequacy of the Administration’s
proposals, which aside from more tests, offer little to struggling schools.
For example, Bush passionately professes concern for the 70 percent of urban
students who don’t read at grade level. (He also typically bases his reading
program on questionable research that appears biased towards heavily
prescripted versions of phonics-based instruction.) But the most striking
feature of the program is its severely limited scope. Bush’s proposed tax cut
would deliver 128 times more dollars to the richest 1 percent of the
population then he would spend on his reading initiative. Inevitably, the
great majority of those 4th graders will remain left behind.

proposals include no major school construction initiative (aside from a small
investment in schools for military personnel and Native Americans). There is
no serious effort to address child poverty or health care issues. In fact
Bush’s tax proposals, the supposed centerpiece of his economic priorities,
don’t include a single dollar in tax relief or tax credits for families with
the nation’s 24 million poorest children. While families making up to $160,000
would get tax credits for private school tuition, families with half of all
Black and Latino children would receive nothing. Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax plan
(including $600 billion for the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent) is one thousand
times larger than the additional $1.6 billion he has proposed spending on
schools that serve 40 million children.

Rhetoric and
tests can go only so far in covering up such priorities. As one of the few
outspoken Congressional critics of the Bush plan, Senator Wellstone declared,
“I am afraid that his plan could set up millions of vulnerable kids for
failure, leaving us with another dose of mostly symbolic politics at the
expense of poor children and their families. The education reform framework
that the new administration is developing could do a great deal of additional
damage to the children in America’s most troubled public schools.”

“It’s clear
that we have failed to provide all children with the same tools for success,”
Wellstone continued. “And given Bush’s other spending priorities—it seems
certain there will be little if anything left to finance his efforts to leave
no child behind…Before we threaten to withhold billions from schools in the
name of accountability, politicians and education leaders at all levels, from
the White House on down, must first be held accountable to give children what
they need to learn.”

Bush’s testing scheme will take effective lobbying and organizing efforts. But
nearly every school district in the country has some stake in blocking annual,
federally mandated, high-stakes testing. Resolutions and active protests from
local school boards, parent groups, professional associations and teachers
unions could help change Bush’s plans. They could also encourage public
examination of the impact that high stakes testing is having on schools around
the country, and of how legitimate concerns about assessment and student
achievement must be paired with policies that make real school improvement

In the immortal
words of the verbally-challenged president: “Rarely is the question asked: is
our children learning?” Like the grammar in his question, Bush’s education
proposal gets the answers all wrong.

For more
on the Bush plan contact FairTest at www.fairtest.org or visit the Rethinking
Schools website at www.rethinkingschools.org/bushplan.htm. This article
originally appeared in
Rethinking Schools, 1001 E. Keefe
Ave, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53212.