Some conservatives on Capitol Hill are worried that President Bush will cut a deal with Democrats that would not only renew his education law, but also dramatically expand it, including perhaps more requirements for the high school level.
“I am concerned, and I think a lot of conservatives are,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican.
Mr. Bush is urging Congress this year to renew one of his biggest domestic accomplishments, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law of 2002, which aims to increase student achievement through more testing and by tracking results of schools and holding them accountable. Democrats, who now control the House and Senate, are demanding some changes to the law, most notably a significant boost in funding levels.
The option of adding high school reform to this year’s “to-do” list hasn’t been publicly discussed lately, but Mr. Bush included the makings of such a plan in his budget proposal last year. The NCLB law focuses on grade school and requires testing just once in reading and math from grades 10 to 12. His plan from last year would have expanded high school testing to all three years.
All these factors could add up to the perfect storm of more funding and more school requirements, some Republicans worry. Mr. Flake said he sees a scenario in which Mr. Bush gives Democrats the increased funding they want in exchange for including more requirements for high school.
“Conservatives don’t fear the president will work with Democrats to expand No Child Left Behind, we expect it,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican. “It’s going to be more red tape and more resources.”
“It’s a legitimate concern,” agreed Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican.
Republicans are basing much of their fear on what happened in 2001, when Mr. Bush teamed up with Democrats such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to win overwhelming approval in Congress. But conservatives — several of whom voted against the legislation as a federal intrusion into the classroom — said the good administration ideas, such as increased funding flexibility for states, were watered down by the time the measure reached the president’s desk.
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said education policy seems to be an issue on which Mr. Bush thinks he can work with Democrats to accomplish his goals, especially in these last two years of his presidency.
“My rationale is that the president’s agenda is not going to keep him from working with the Democrats at the expense of the Republicans,” Mr. King said. “The president is concerned about his legacy.”
So far, Mr. Bush has praised the NCLB law and urged Congress to renew it. He has agreed to work with Congress on some changes to it, but he hasn’t indicated his position on the Democrats’ funding demands. The high school reform issue didn’t come up in a Monday meeting between Mr. Bush and top education lawmakers — Mr. Kennedy, the new chairman of the Senate education, panel; House education panel Chairman George Miller, California Democrat; and their Republican counterparts, Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California.
Mr. McKeon, who says it’s too soon to fully expand the law in high schools, said: “I hope that it’s not something they push for.”
Mr. Kennedy supports working on high school reform as part of the NCLB renewal, a spokeswoman said. Mr. Miller doesn’t want to simply overlay the NCLB framework onto the high school level, but he thinks high school reform is “critically important,” a spokesman said.
White House spokesman Chad Colby said this week, “The administration still believes NCLB should be expanded in high schools as part of broader high school reform.”
The administration will submit its 2008 budget request to Congress next month.
Mr. Lungren said conservatives should bend Mr. Bush’s ear before he starts negotiating education policy with liberals such as Mr. Kennedy. But this negotiating “dance” will be a challenge, Mr. Lungren acknowledged, especially because many Republicans have spent their entire Capitol Hill careers as members of the majority party.
“We’ve got to be on our toes,” he said.