President Bush wants to add elements to the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that will ensure the competitiveness of American students by strengthening math and science education-but he also is making another run at giving poor students private school vouchers, a move a Congress controlled by Democrats appears ready to block.
The White House on Jan. 23 unveiled details of the president’s proposals for overhauling NCLB, which is up for renewal this year. Bush also briefly touched on NCLB in his State of the Union address, urging Congress to renew the education law this year.
After a great deal of buildup leading up to the State of the Union that it would focus heavily on domestic issues, only 203 of the speech’s 5,510 words dealt with education. Nearly half of Bush’s speech-some 2,500 words-focused on the war on terror, seeking to persuade the Democratic Congress to give his controversial strategy for Iraq a chance to work.
On NCLB, Bush said: “Five years ago, we rose above partisan differences to pass the No Child Left Behind Act-preserving local control, raising standards in public schools, and holding those schools accountable for results. And because we acted, students are performing better in reading and math, and minority students are closing the achievement gap.”
Bush said the task before Congress now is “to build on this success-without watering down standards, without taking control from local communities, and without backsliding and calling it reform.”
“We can lift student achievement even higher by giving local leaders flexibility to turn around failing schools-and by giving families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose something better,” he said. “We must increase funds for students who struggle-and make sure these children get the special help they need. And we can make sure our children are prepared for the jobs of the future, and our country is more competitive, by strengthening math and science skills.”
He concluded: “The No Child Left Behind Act has worked for America’s children-and I ask Congress to reauthorize this good law.”
The administration’s proposal calls for giving vouchers-called “promise scholarships” in the president’s parlance-to students in schools that persistently fail to meet progress goals set by the federal law.
“This is not for every kid in America. This is for those kids who are trapped in the absolute worst schools that just don’t seem to be capable, or willing, to make the changes necessary to serve those students well,” White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joel Kaplan said before the president’s State of the Union address.
The administration tried to include such a measure in NCLB when it was first signed into law five years ago. Democrats, then in the minority party, blocked the effort.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who became chairman of the Senate committee overseeing education when Democrats took over Congress this year, said he would work to keep vouchers out of the education law.
“We need new and creative ideas for helping our schools to improve and our students to succeed. Instead, the president has proposed more of the same,” Kennedy said. “Once again, he proposes siphoning crucial resources from our public schools.”
Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who chairs the House committee overseeing education, called the voucher proposal unacceptable. “It didn’t pass muster when Republicans controlled the Congress, and it certainly won’t pass muster now that Democrats do,” Miller said.
NCLB seeks to ensure that all children can read and do math at grade level by 2014, which has placed unprecedented demands on schools. They have been required to step up testing, raise teacher quality, and place more attention on the achievements of minority children.
Besides promoting vouchers, the administration is calling for other changes to the law. One would require states to publish a report card showcasing how students do on state tests compared with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous national test. Such a move could put pressure on states to strengthen their assessments and standards.
The administration also wants to make tutoring more widely available, by ensuring that school districts notify parents of their options under the law. In addition, Bush wants to expand the Teacher Incentive Fund, which supports efforts to reward teachers who raise student achievement and work in needy schools; expand the Striving Readers program, which targets literacy instruction in grades 6-12; and increase funding for Title I in high schools, to ensure that more students graduate on time. According to the Alliance for Excellence in Education, only about 70 percent of students graduate from high school on time-and only about half of minority students receive a high school diploma in four years.
To prepare students for success in the new global economy, Bush wants to incorporate the educational elements of his American Competitiveness Initiative-which he unveiled in last year’s State of the Union Address-into the reauthorization of NCLB.
The administration aims to increase the rigor of math and science classes by training more teachers and making Advanced Placement (AP) classes available to more students in these disciplines. Bush also wants to create an Adjunct Teacher Corps of talented professionals who will share their expertise in the classroom, and he wants Congress to enact the recommendations of the National Math Panel he formed last year.
In addition, states are required to add science testing in three grade levels by 2008, and the president wants the renewed education law to specify that all students will achieve proficiency in science by the 2019-20 school year.
The president’s proposals in the area of competitiveness are likely to get a much warmer reception on Capitol Hill than his call for vouchers. Shortly before Bush’s 2006 State of the Union Address, House Democrats introduced a plan of their own to keep America competitive in the new global economy. The Democrats’ plan made improved education its centerpiece and called for incentives for students to pursue careers in science and technology (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5978).
Besides renewing NCLB, Bush urged lawmakers packed into the House chamber for his State of the Union address to send him legislation helping more Americans afford health insurance, reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, and overhaul immigration laws.
State of the Union 2007
“Building On Results: A Blueprint For Strengthening NCLB” (Bush’s proposals)