President Bush’s education reform bill hasn’t made headlines lately. But in terms of enduring importance, it may yet be one of the most significant bills before Congress. A quick review of negotiations over the plan suggests the bill could go either way especially on two vital particulars.
The Senate and House bills passed late last spring, now being reconciled by four key leaders on a conference committee, differ in two key ways: accountability, or how to make sure that federal education aid gets the desired results (i.e., that children learn) and flexibility, or what methods states and school districts may use to allocate federal money.
The lead negotiators the chairmen of the House and Senate education committees, Democratic Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, and their committees’ ranking members, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Democratic Rep. George Miller of California do not, with the possible exception of Mr. Gregg, inspire confidence in most education reformers. Yet the bills they bring to the table have at least the pieces in place for a solid reform agenda and may yet allow some of the major policy changes many educators have sought for years.
Each of the chambers, in effect, brings half a bill to the conference committee. The House bill, with the support of both Messrs. Boehner and Miller, monitors the results of federal support via standardized testing. Meanwhile, the Senate bill, thanks to Messrs. Gregg and Kennedy, gives surprising leeway to state and local officials in spending federal dollars.
Mr. Boehner’s promise to work with Democrats to implement the Bush bill and especially its proposed math and reading tests for students in grades three through eight earned him House Republicans’ nod to become chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee this year. His ranking member, Mr. Miller, is the rare liberal who is willing to stand up to the teachers’ unions, at least on testing, because as he told Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker this summer “A loose system … works really harshly against poor and minority students.”
More importantly, Messrs. Miller and Boehner managed to come up with a simple monitoring formula: Each school district currently below its state’s passing marks for math and reading must improve by about 8 percent over each of the next 12 years to catch up, or else risk losing federal administrative funds. This makes the House bill far superior to the Senate bill in terms of the “ends” and is critical to the legislation’s ultimate success.
The Senate bill’s strength, by contrast, is in the “means.” When Mr. Kennedy became chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee as a result of the party switch of ex-chairman James Jeffords of Vermont, it was yet another New Englander, the conservative Mr. Gregg, who replaced Mr. Jeffords as the ranking Republican. Mr. Gregg exasperated with his fellow senators for inventing new programs to show how much they “cared about kids” came up with the sound bite “No Senator left behind” to echo the president’s “No child left behind.”
That sound bite captures Mr. Gregg’s desire, as a former governor of a famously flinty state, to get federal money directly to the states and districts that need it. So Mr. Kennedy, under pressure from Mr. Gregg and other senators, included a “charter states” provision favored by Mr. Bush in the Senate bill. This would allow up to seven states and 25 large school districts to enter into agreements with the Department of Education to lift regulations on how to spend their federal money including Title I funds designated for poor children.
This “charter states” provision is crucial to any final bill. The advocacy group Public Agenda released a poll this week in which 88 percent of superintendents said they believed that “keeping up with all the local, state and federal mandates handed down to the schools takes too much time.” In the same poll, two-thirds of superintendents and principals said “their hands are tied” or “they must work around the system” to bring academic success to their schools.
That’s the good news for education reformers. The bad news in the Senate bill is that Mr. Kennedy is utterly unwilling to penalize that is, hold accountable districts whose students score poorly on tests. (In fact, in the Senate version, schools with poor test scores would actually qualify for additional federal aid for one year.) And the bad news in the House bill is that Mr. Miller has proved inflexible on the question of spending methods. Apparently the Californian truly believes that “fill-in-the-blanks” on bureaucratic forms do just as much to help poor children as they do on standardized tests.
Yet honorable compromise to benefit the cause of reform may yet be near. For liberals have already won the day on the education issue they say is most important money.
When the September 11 attacks delayed consideration of the education bill past the start of the fiscal year, House and Senate appropriators always generous to a fault, regardless of party took over the budget process. As a result, the Department of Education will receive about $4.7 billion more than the almost $50 billion Mr. Bush asked for at the beginning of the year. In today’s political climate, the president is unlikely to veto such spending.
Conservatives from Mr. Bush on down have always said that structural change in education policy is the most important outcome. Meanwhile, liberals from Messrs. Kennedy and Miller up to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt have said that investment in education is the most important issue. One can dispute their priorities, but no one would deny that there are, after all, decrepit schools and underpaid teachers in many parts of the country.
So at a time of war, when both Democrats and Republicans have said national unity is key, why can’t Messrs. Boehner, Gregg, Kennedy and Miller agree to agree with their party leaders to get what they all want, and more importantly, what America’s children need?
Larry Parker is a senior reporter at Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Arlington.