Failing Grade

Education Reform is a Clear Loser in Bush's 2006 Budget

During the second presidential debate last year, George W. Bush ventured that "the No Child Left Behind Act is really a jobs act when you think about it."

This column originally appeared in American Prospect Online on February 14, 2005.  

During the second presidential debate last year, George W. Bush ventured that “the No Child Left Behind Act is really a jobs act when you think about it.” Democrats mocked President Bush, but education has always been critical for a president who asks voters to “sense my heart.” It is the only major issue on which he reached across the political aisle — all the way to Senator Ted Kennedy — to forge a broad consensus for reform. That’s why it’s sad now to see Bush eviscerating that consensus and empowering reform’s critics. Monday’s budget is the latest bad sign.

Bush’s approach to education marks a striking shift for Republicans. In the 1990s, when then-House speaker Newt Gingrich tried to abolish the Education Department, the GOP had looked hard-hearted. Much as President Bill Clinton moderated a party’s soft image by promoting welfare reform, President Bush sweetened a party’s tough tone with a Clintonian new deal on education: The federal government would offer record support for schools, but it would demand record returns through high standards, tough tests, and real remedies for schools that don’t measure up.

In important ways, Bush’s good politics made for good policy, too. The education reform law isn’t perfect, but it codifies a national commitment extraordinary at any time but particularly from a Republican: Every child, regardless of race or poverty, will have the basic skills to participate in our economy and democracy. The law says that we will set high standards, and we will measure our success in meeting those standards. Liberals like Ted Kennedy stood with Bush for good reason.

During his first term, Bush honored at least some of the bargain. He didn’t propose the funding authorized by the new law, but he did support sharp growth. Democrats like Senator John Kerry rightly complained that Bush wasn’t living up to the deal — but Bush had a ready response, as in that second debate: “Only a liberal senator from Massachusetts would say that a 49 percent increase in funding for education was not enough.”

The new budget abandons the pretense of funding education increases. Like Gingrich, Bush has now proposed to cut education in nominal dollars. His No Child Left Behind request now falls $12 billion short, fully one-third of the authorization level. Bush has flat-funded the charter schools that his own administration champions. He has flat-funded the afterschool and preschool programs that troubled kids need. And he has eliminated promising reforms like breaking up big, weak schools. At the very moment when reform’s demands have climbed — when more schools must allow students to transfer, offer tutoring, or prepare to shut down — the gap between funding envisioned and funding offered for reform has widened into a chasm.

There is one clear loser here: education reform. It’s always been a tough sell. Critics on the right have never liked Washington’s interference with local schools. Critics on the left have never liked the law’s unyielding demands or its treatment of testing as the measure of all things. More schools are now looking up a hill they see little prospect of climbing.

Reform’s best hope has always been simple: It just has to work. But underfunding fuels critics’ worst fears. To take only one example: When states don’t have money, they buy lousy off-the-shelf tests. Overburdened teachers boost their students’ scores by structuring lessons around the tests instead of teaching more worthwhile material. And then parents fume about “teaching to the test.” Much of this problem could be solved with better tests: tests that are connected to high standards; demand more sophisticated knowledge; and require longer answers and challenging essays — not just penciling in bubbles. But better tests cost billions ($3 billion over five years, according to the Government Accountability Office) that fiscally strapped states don’t have and that President hasn’t offered. This new budget means more parents will be angry about high standards when they should be angry about low funding.

The budget also undermines the political coalition for reform. Congressman Dick Gephardt captured many liberals’ sentiments when he said he supported No Child Left Behind “because it was the only way to get money into public education under a Bush presidency.” As the promise of more money evaporates, so too does support.

The president’s defenders will say that federal dollars make a small contribution to school budgets and that local reform can and should continue even without the new resources. They’re right, but that’s not the point. Bush’s budget makes successful reform that much tougher. The Bush administration found the money to pay off Armstrong Williams. They found the money to pay for the jobs act they really care about: tax cuts for multimillionaires. They should have found the money to pay for their education bill. What gets funded, and what doesn’t, says far too much about what’s in the president’s heart.

Robert Gordon is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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