- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Bush’s fiscal 2009 budget request included provisions that would reauthorize and expand funding for the No Child Left Behind law to $24.5 billion, a 41 percent increase since its enactment in 2002. The 2009 plan would also increase Title I grants to schools with high numbers of impoverished students to $14.3 billion, an increase of 63 percent since NCLB’s enactment. Mr. Bush also requested $175 million for the American Competitiveness Initiative, which was created to strengthen math, science and foreign-language curricula.

During Jan. 28 State of the Union address, Mr. Bush outlined a new program called Pell Grants for Kids, a K-12 scholarship proposal that would provide funding for low-income students in failing schools to transfer to local private or out-of-district public schools. The 2009 budget, which was released Monday, includes $300 million for this initiative.

Mr. Bush also put forth an ambitious request to increase federal aid for college students, this on the heels of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act that he signed in September, which designated $11.4 billion in new funding for Pell Grants over the next five years. For fiscal 2009, Mr. Bush hopes to increase the maximum per-student allowance for Pell Grants, which do not need to be repaid, to $4,800 and hopes to see them increase to $5,400 by 2012. Overall, money for Pell Grants has increased 116 percent since 2001, according to White House tallies. This new budget request would also designate $95 billion for student loans to college students.

As Congress and the White House grapple over reauthorizing NCLB and how to make college more affordable, it is worth looking at where the major presidential candidates want to steer education policy.

Hillary Clinton has called for a “total change” to NCLB, even though she voted for the original legislation, saying the law doesn’t grant states enough flexibility to measure student achievement. Mrs. Clinton has called for an expansion of early childhood education, and more charter and technical schools. She would also like to see the school year extended for K-12 students and touts her efforts to increase funding for student loans.

Barack Obama has said that the traditional forms of testing under NCLB don’t paint a full picture of schools’ progress and hopes to see more money devoted toward non-traditional methods of comparison. He’d also like to increase teachers’ salaries, and he supports merit-based pay, so long as teachers themselves are on board.

On the Republican side, education is generally a lower priority — at least from the perspective of federal involvement — among the top contenders.

Mike Huckabee says he supports NCLB and denounces critics who describe it as an excessive overreach of federal authority. He has been critical of the education system generally, saying today’s students are “in a 19th-century education system in a 21st-century world,” and says that teachers should personalize their students’ lesson plans to fit their strengths and weaknesses. He also repeatedly calls for increasing music and art education in schools.

John McCain supported the original authorization of NCLB, calling it a “good beginning” for its outline of narrow and concrete goals for schools to achieve. However, like his Democratic counterparts, Mr. McCain has been somewhat critical of what he sees as shortfalls in testing methods for students with disabilities and English as a Second Language students. Mr. McCain says he hopes to “take away power from education bureaucrats” and give it to local districts and teachers.

This election cycle, domestic, kitchen-table issues — such as education, immigration and health care —have moved to the forefront of voters’ minds, but school choice, local control and flexibility resonate nonetheless with voters of all stripes. It’s as important for candidates to articulate where they stand on the federal government’s role — and the lack there of — on education as it is for them to spell out the government’s role on national security and other foreign policy issues.

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