If success in public policy — like genius — is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, the Bush administration is working up a good sweat on school reform. The level of exertion the last two administrations put into implementing major education legislation is a study in contrasts. The lesson learned is that hard work and tenacity pay off.
On an unusually hot October morning almost 10 years ago, punctuating one of the last acts of a Democrat-run Congress, President Clinton signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1994, setting ambitious new goals for excellence in schools. Warming up the crowd even more at the signing ceremony, Mr. Clinton promised the bill would “fundamentally change the way the federal government looks at how we should do our job.”
Yet, nearly a decade later, the former president’s words and his administration’s deeds were out of step. When Mr. Bush took office, only 11 states complied with the 1994 act. (Compliance means having a federally approved plan where states outline how they will achieve benchmarks dealing with student achievement.)
“There is no question President Clinton was a huge disappointment on education,” a leading Republican lawmaker on the issue said. Another GOP education aide remarked, “Clinton got the signing ceremony, but the reforms never took root. That’s because once the publicity of signing the bill passed, he never did the hard work of implementation with the states. He signed waiver after waiver and never held anyone accountable.”
But there is a new “school superintendent” in the White House. Earlier this month, Mr. Bush announced — in an event largely ignored by the media — that all 50 states now complied with the No Child Left Behind Act. This landmark achievement could do more to ensure educational excellence in America than any steps previously taken by the federal government. The behind-the-scenes efforts by the White House and the Department of Education to assist states in achieving compliance is an object lesson in how the unglamorous work of policy implementation is what really makes a difference in Washington.
Mr. Bush signaled his commitment even before he was sworn in. When he called together congressional educational leaders in Austin, Texas in 2000, President-elect Bush very much impressed Ranking House Education Committee Democrat George Miller. Normally a liberal ally of Mr. Clinton, Mr. Miller often expressed disappointment with his president’s lack of follow-throughoneducationpolicy implementation over his eight-year term. “You seem really serious about this,” Mr. Miller reportedly told the President-elect in the meeting. “If you are, I’m with you.”
Mr. Bush and his administration didn’t disappoint Mr. Miller. Beginning in January 2002, Education Department officials, led by Undersecretary Gene Hickok, began the arduous process of meeting with state officials, discussing how to implement the No Child Left Behind Act. “We told them we wanted to be partners, not compliance officers,” Mr. Hickok said. “But we also let them know we would enforce the law.”
A key moment in the quiet diplomacy occurred when the Bush administration got tough with Georgia, deciding to withhold federal funds because the state had been out of compliance for eight years. “Word spread like wildfire among the other states that this administration was serious about enforcing the law and that helped us get others to fall in line,” Hickok said.
“Getting all 50 states to comply with the new law is a huge accomplishment, and frankly, a little bit of a surprise,” said Rep. John Boehner, Ohio Republican, chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee. “I don’t think it’s ever been done in education programs, or any federal program for that matter.” Even on the morning of the White House announcement, the administration was jawboning a couple of final states to make last-minute changes bringing them into compliance. “I wasn’t entirely sure we had all 50 states even when I was driving to the White House ceremony that morning,” one Education Department official said.
The media largely ignored the White House’s compliance announcement, either because it was expected or considered unimportant. Both conclusions are wrong. One of the character traits that endears this president to the American people is his dogged determination to do what he says he’s going to do — even if it’s not glittery or glamorous. The hard work of policy implementation is just that — hard work. Mr. Bush and his administration deserve credit for not only talking the talk but walking the walk on education reform.
Ten years from now, perhaps on another sultry summer day, when a different president announces an American achievement based on quality education, it could be a result of an unheralded White House ceremony in June 2003. A day when all 50 states agreed to higher standards of excellence in schools and a president not only worked with Congress to pass a law, but invested the sweat equity to make sure it was implemented.