Monday, February 05, 2007

We'll wait and see

Read about President Bush's support for vouchers. -Angela

Sun, Feb. 04, 2007 / Star-Telegram
We'll wait and see

In the more than 5,500 words of his Jan. 23 State of the Union address, President Bush devoted fewer than 200 words to education. But all of them were aimed at what since the beginning of his administration clearly has been one of his strongest domestic policy initiatives: the No Child Left Behind Act.

No matter the brevity of those remarks. The 5-year-old NCLB is before Congress again this year for its scheduled reauthorization, and the Bush administration is pushing hard for it. The day after the State of the Union speech, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings released a 15-page document outlining the continued programs and NCLB enhancements that Bush and his team want.

Some of the initiatives hinted at in the State of the Union address the now-majority Democrats in Congress have declared dead on arrival.

Bush said:

That local leaders should have "flexibility to turn around failing schools." The next day, Spellings' document showed the bizarre meaning of that line. In states -- not Texas -- where teachers are members of unions and have collective bargaining contracts, Bush wants school administrators to have the power to ignore those contracts in order to reassign teachers while restructuring failing schools. He also wants to allow school leaders to ignore state limits on the number of charter schools and reopen failed schools as charters if necessary.

Yes, the president and Congress are powerful, but nothing in the Constitution gives them the power to interfere with state public education policy in this way.

That the new NCLB should give "families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose someplace better." By that, we now know that he meant federal vouchers of up to $4,000 for children to attend private schools and grants to states for voucher programs that would pay all private school tuition, fees and costs, as well as transportation expenses for low-income children who have been assigned to failing public schools.

Bush couldn't get vouchers in the original NCLB, and Democrats say he won't get them this time, either.

Nevertheless, Congress is likely to reauthorize No Child Left Behind in some form this year.

For now, the ball is still in the president's court. His budget proposals, scheduled for release this week, will show how much money Bush is willing to put behind his proposed NCLB enhancements. Education advocates all along have complained that the promises of NCLB have not been matched with necessary funding.

Among other things, Bush says he wants to give states more money to help low-income high school students, money to reward teachers and principals who raise student achievement or who work in the neediest schools, money to strengthen math teaching in elementary and middle schools, money for "Striving Readers" programs in grades six through 12, and money to help schools implement improvement plans.

That's a lot of money -- or a lot of empty promises. We'll see which.

The document released by Spellings ("Building on Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening the No Child Left Behind Act") makes it clear that Bush will not retreat from the law's primary tenets:

Annual testing in reading and math, with results broken down by student groups in a effort to close achievement gaps.

A goal of having all students reading and doing math at or above grade level by 2014. (Only four states -- Delaware, Kansas, North Carolina and Oklahoma -- are on track to meet that goal.)

Qualified teachers in core academic subjects in every classroom.

Timely information on school performance, as well as information on education options, supplied to parents or guardians of all students.

All cynicism aside, there are several good parts to Bush's proposals. For one, he acknowledges the increasingly competitive nature of today's technological world and would add science to school testing requirements, with grade-level proficiency required by the 2019-20 school year.

Under NCLB, student tests have been designed and graded by the states, and states also determine what constitutes a passing score. Education experts have cited what they call a "race to the bottom," in which some states have set achievement requirements exceedingly low to avoid any NCLB sanctions. Bush would counteract that by requiring states to participate in a nationwide testing program, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and to report those results to parents.

And Bush would allow states with adequate data collection systems to show that they are on their way to meeting NCLB goals by measuring growth in individual student achievement, not just raw pass-or-fail test results.

Bush can point to some improvements in educational results since the law went into effect, but there is a long way to go. If nothing else, maybe the coming debate will demonstrate that, on both sides of the political aisle, education is important.

© 2007 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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