In implementation, education law loses bipartisan aura

Next August, as the 2004 general election campaign gets under way, state governments will very likely rate at least one-quarter of the nation's public schools as failing to meet federal "No Child Left Behind" standards. As a result, school superintendents--mostly those in cities, but some in suburbs and rural areas--will be forced to write to tens of thousands of parents that their children will be allowed to transfer to a different public school because their current school is not making the grade.

Newspapers will then publish predictable articles listing their community's poor-performing schools and quoting superintendents, principals, and teachers as saying the lists and labels are unfair. Those articles will spill over into September and October, as students transfer to different schools, districts are forced to take remedial steps to try to boost the performance of failing schools, and states identify teachers who are not authorized under federal definitions to teach their assigned subject. Superintendents will then have to send out more letters, this time informing parents that their children are being taught by teachers whom the federal government views as unqualified.

This flurry of activity will be a result of the signature education achievement of President Bush's first term, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. The law, the most aggressive federal education mandate in history, requires annual testing for students in the nation's 95,000 public schools and orders states to rate their schools based on how many students pass the tests. Schools labeled as "not making adequate yearly progress" are subject to a host of state actions aimed at improving the schools--or letting parents pull their kids out.

Ninety-five percent of congressional Democrats and 86 percent of congressional Republicans voted for the law. But since the Bush administration began implementing it and since Democratic presidential candidates began campaigning, the law has steadily lost its bipartisan aura. Now, No Child Left Behind is shaping up as a presidential election issue. How central that issue will be to the general election campaign depends heavily on who wins the Democratic nomination.

The president's campaign is touting the law as a major achievement. Democrats--especially former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean--are lampooning Bush over the law's effects. But with foreign policy and the economy dominating the campaign thus far, education is likely to be relegated to a bit part in the campaign.

"Education is not nearly as salient as the Middle East and the economy are," said political science professor James Davis of the Washington University in St. Louis. "But it's in the top five," he estimates.

"Traditionally, if you cared about education, it was assumed you should vote Democrat," said Andrew Rudalevige, a political scientist at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. Throughout the 1990s, many Republicans pushed for the abolition of the federal Education Department. Polls showed that voters trusted Democrats more than they did Republicans to handle education issues well. But then George W. Bush came along. The Texas governor ran for president with the education slogan "No Child Left Behind." He called for states to improve public schools. The shift in message helped Bush's party on Election Day. In the Voter News Service's 2000 exit polls conducted for CNN, 15 percent of voters said education was the most important issue for them. Of those voters, 52 percent voted for Al Gore and 44 percent voted for Bush--a surprisingly good showing for a Republican.

Bush succeeded in pushing his No Child Left Behind Act through Congress in January 2002. In some surveys since then, Democrats still outpoll Republicans on education. But in other surveys, the parties are even. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in July 2002 found that 62 percent of respondents approved of Bush's handling of education.

"This is not Bob Dole in 1996 on the heels of Republican efforts to destroy the Department of Education," said Andrew Rotherham, director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "Bush made education Exhibit A in compassionate conservatism."

Voters like the idea of holding schools accountable for students' performance, a key goal of No Child Left Behind. But several implementation problems make Bush potentially vulnerable as he runs for re-election, education experts said.

One problem is confusion. No Child Left Behind's accountability provisions are complex and riddled with jargon. For example, if one subgroup, such as limited-English-proficient (LEP) learners, fails to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in one of the tested subjects in one grade, then the entire school could be labeled as "Year Two in Need of Improvement," forcing the school to offer transfers and supplemental educational services (SES). No wonder several polls have found that most Americans don't understand No Child Left Behind.

Funding is another big dispute. Democrats--even such ardent supporters of the act as Rep. George Miller of California--charge that Bush is underfunding the law to the tune of $6 billion to $9 billion a year. Bush administration officials respond that education spending is at record highs.

And then there is mounting resistance to the law from governors and state legislatures, school boards and superintendents, principals and teachers. Many object to a federal mandate that has far-reaching effects on public schools even though federal funding accounts for only 7 percent of school budgets. Many educators also call the law's accountability provisions unfair, since a school that fails in only one area is subject to the same consequences as a school that fails in 35.

The two largest teachers unions--the National Education Association with 2.7 million members, and the American Federation of Teachers with 800,000 members--want to rewrite No Child Left Behind. Both unions argue that the act needs to be "fixed and funded," as NEA President Reg Weaver puts it.

The unions wield significant political clout within the Democratic Party. "They have 3 million members," noted Terry Moe, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "They not only have a ton of money, they can put people on the ground, make phone calls, go door to door. The Democrats absolutely need" that help.

All of the major Democratic presidential candidates have talked with the unions' leaders. The teachers have urged the candidates to talk about revising No Child Left Behind and increasing its funding. Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her members are not ready to endorse a candidate, though "consensus is building." Meanwhile, the Massachusetts affiliate of the NEA has endorsed home-state candidate John Kerry; the North Carolina and South Carolina affiliates have endorsed North Carolinian John Edwards. The California, New Hampshire, and Vermont affiliates have endorsed Dean.

"There's an aspect of this that's not something you can grab in your hand, but Gov. Dean has respect for public schools and public school children," said Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association, the largest NEA affiliate. "You need to balance criticism and praise, and the president we have now is into criticism. Gov. Dean understands there is definitely need for improvement in public schools, but you don't beat someone almost dead and then try to bring them back."

It is too early for Bush or his Democratic rivals to talk about whether No Child Left Behind is actually helping to raise student performance. The Bush administration has instead tried to keep the focus on passage of the act and the initial work in setting up accountability programs. "For the first time in the history of our nation, every state in our nation has an accountability plan that holds all schools and all students in their state to the same high standards," Education Secretary Roderick Paige recently told a Houston audience.

All of the Democratic candidates who currently serve in Congress--Sen. Kerry, Sen. Edwards, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Rep. Dick Gephardt, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich--voted for the act. All of them, as well as Wesley Clark and Carol Moseley Braun, are criticizing Bush on the funding shortfall. They are also calling for various modifications in the law. But it's difficult for the candidates in Congress to campaign hard against a law they voted for.

Dean has been the most ardent critic of No Child Left Behind. As governor of Vermont in 2002, he even flirted with the idea of refusing federal money rather than complying with the law. In the end, Vermont complied. Dean's campaign rhetoric has suggested complete opposition to the legislation. "We need to talk about an education system that's different than No Child Left Behind, which has left so many children and so many teachers behind and given huge unfunded mandates to Americans all over this country," Dean said at a December 9 debate. But Dean's actual plan for elementary and secondary education calls for revising, not repealing, No Child Left Behind. "I have spoken to [Dean] many times," said AFT President Feldman. "He's not talking about getting rid of it. He is promising he will change it."

In Democrats' quest to differentiate themselves from Bush, then, No Child Left Behind is not as clear-cut an issue as some other education topics are. Several of the candidates, including Edwards and Dean, have spent a lot of time talking about college tuition costs and preschool access, for example, issues that Bush has not pushed as president. "I would be surprised if the candidates don't make higher education a bigger issue," Rotherham said.

But, in the end, few observers expect education issues to be central to the presidential campaign. "The goals of [the No Child Left Behind] program are good," said Michael Cohen, a former education official in the Clinton administration. "There are some serious design difficulties, but not stuff you can make a campaign speech on. If a candidate makes a lot of speeches with 'AYP' in them, they're in trouble. There are much bigger issues to base a presidential campaign on."

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