- K-12 Education
- Higher Education
- Who We Are
Although the congressional session is still young, President Bush has already missed his two big opportunities to set the table for reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. In his State of the Union address, the president mentioned education near the top of the speech but failed to lay the political groundwork for why a continuation of the law matters.
With members of Congress under pressure from education organizations opposed to the law's tough accountability provisions, this is a mistake that could have been avoided with just a few sentences about the troubling academic achievement gaps for disadvantaged students that the law seeks to address. And in the Fiscal Year 2008 budget request he released yesterday, the president again missed a chance to make a case for the law.
Conventional wisdom inside the Washington Beltway has held that Congress will not be able to reauthorize NCLB until after the 2008 presidential election. Yet that analysis could be wrong if the central players—President Bush and key Democrats on Capitol Hill—can arrive at a deal. As with many things in Washington, the real grease for any reauthorization bargain will be money. Unfortunately, the president's budget is neither big enough nor bold enough to increase the likelihood of NCLB reauthorization.
Among the key players—the president, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio)—there is a general agreement about the law’s core provisions, including annual testing, accountability provisions with teeth, and a goal of closing the achievement gap for traditionally under-served students.
But both Democratic and Republican education leaders face substantial opposition within their parties. Democrats find themselves cross-pressured between an education establishment seeking to ease pressure on schools in need of improvement and a civil-rights coalition increasingly frustrated with the persistent under-education of minority youngsters. At the same time, congressional Republicans who came to Washington seeking to minimize the federal role in elementary and secondary schooling feel less and less need to support President Bush, given his widespread unpopularity and the approaching end if his term.
That's why money matters so much this year. To be fair, education has done pretty well during the Bush administration relative to other budget items not related to national defense or mandatory entitlements, even in light of the lean budgets of recent years. Likewise, there is no amount of money the president could have requested for education that would have satisfied his critics. The budget process, moreover, is a long courtship, and the president's initial proposal amounts to a first date.
But the budget announced yesterday is short on both big ideas and funding. The flagship Title I program for low-income students got an extra $1.2 billion, with another $500 million added to improve low-performing schools. That's a start, although very likely not enough to win Democratic support, especially because Bush also proposed spending another $600 million on several voucher-like programs to pay students' tuition in private schools—a move sure to antagonize many Democrats. And all the money for new or expanded programs comes from roughly $2 billion in cuts from elsewhere in the U.S. Department of Education budget, which was basically flat-lined overall.
That means no new funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is sure to frustrate advocates for students with disabilities, and a big cut in funding for career and technical education, another important program with a powerful constituency. The president also proposed elimination of various federal education programs of dubious merit. While this is a good idea, it doesn't send a signal that the president will find new resources for education when the time comes to make an NCLB deal with congressional Democrats.
And those new resources are the political cost of a deal, as was the case in 2001, when stronger school accountability provisions were accompanied by a significant increase in Title I funding. If the key players can reach a deal that includes a substantial increase in NLCB funding, then it paves the way for a coalition to come together to reauthorize the law. Otherwise, the prospects grow for either a stalemate or increasing pressure to blunt the law's tough consequences for low-performing schools. Neither of those outcomes are in the president's interest, so it is puzzling why he has, as of yet, done so little to avoid them.
Connect With Education Sector
Subscribe to our Biweekly Digest, event invitations, and more.