A man as English-language challenged as George W. Bush might seem an unlikely candidate for "education president:”
“You teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”
“What’s not fine is, rarely is the question asked, are, is our children learning?”
But despite his frequent battles with the English language, then Governor Bush portrayed himself as an education reform warrior throughout his first Presidential campaign. Routinely describing education as his “number one priority,” he touted his Texas education accomplishments, including “exemplorary” schools and a statewide testing system designed to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” He vowed to accomplish for the nation what he’d done for Texas with education reforms featuring accountability and local control, and to “renew parents’ faith in the schools their children attend.”
As it turns out, George Bush isn’t an “education president” after all, although he does play one in the White House. For while President Bush did reform our nation’s education system, he based his plan on a Texas system that’s a far cry from the “miracle” he claims to have accomplished there. Moreover, his federal reforms amount to unfunded mandates which impose massive new burdens on our nation’s schools without coming close to footing the bill.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back during the 2000 Presidential campaign, Bush’s Democratic opponent, Vice-President Al Gore, highlighted many defects in Bush’s education plan and observed that Bush’s “major proposal in this campaign is a giant, $2.1 trillion tax giveaway - which would be certain to force cuts in public education.”
Al Gore’s words were prophetic.
We now know that Bush’s “Texas miracle” was at best, as USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham put it, a “mirage.” Wickham was relying on a report by the Rand Corporation, a non-partisan think tank, which challenged the “Texas miracle” claims. The Rand report found that 1998 Texas test score improvements weren’t reflected when students took a national test (the NAEP).
The Rand results were echoed in a study reported in the New York Times on December 3, 2003:
"In recent years, Texas has trumpeted … academic gains … largely on the basis of a state test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS. As a presidential candidate, Texas's former governor, George W. Bush, contended that Texas's methods of holding schools responsible for student performance had brought huge improvements in passing rates and remarkable strides in eliminating the gap between white and minority children. …
"But an examination of the performance of students in Houston by The New York Times raises serious doubts about the magnitude of those gains. Scores on a national exam that Houston students took alongside the Texas exam from 1999 to 2002 showed much smaller gains and falling scores in high school reading.
“Compared with the rest of the country, Houston's gains on the national exam, the Stanford Achievement Test, were modest. The improvements in middle and elementary school were a fraction of those depicted by the Texas test…"
But the Texas system went well beyond “mirage” into fraud territory, with cooked books worthy of Enron and Arthur Andersen. In Bushwhacked, Molly Ivins quoted education expert Linda McNeil, who spearheaded a study of the Texas system:
“We disappear our kids,’ McNeil said… If test scores are low, schools are rated low-performing. In low-performing schools, principals lose their jobs. Tests as a single criterion to evaluate schools provide an incentive for principals to disappear weak students to keep their campus test scores high. …
“The low-performing students encouraged to go quietly are mostly Latino, African-American, and students with limited English proficiency (LEP). After they leave, the Texas Education Agency cooks the books. In 2001 the agency released dropout figures-all under 4 percent. But the conservative Manhattan Institute came up with a dropout rate of 52%...”
And so the “Texas miracle” might more accurately be described (if I might borrow from U.S. Congressman and 2004 Presidential contender Richard Gephardt) as “a miserable failure.”
Nevertheless, that “miracle” helped parlay Bush into the Presidency. And his reforms based on that “miracle” are a centerpiece of his Presidency.
In his Inaugural Address, Bush pledged to "reclaim America's schools, before ignorance and apathy claim more young lives." Days later he introduced his education package which David Corn summarizes here:
“A cornerstone of the plan was more testing for students. In order to ensure ‘accountability and high standards,’ Bush called for annual reading and math ‘assessments’ (read: tests) for every child in grades 3 to 8. Using these tests as the key measurements, states and districts would monitor schools. Schools that did not make ‘adequate yearly progress for one academic year’ would be identified as needing improvement. A school that did not meet ‘adequate yearly progress after two years’ would be designated a ‘failing school,’ and it would have to implement ‘corrective action’ and offer a choice of another public school to its students. If a school screwed up for three years, low-income students could use federal funds to transfer to a better public school or a private school. A voucher system of sorts would kick in.”
When Bush sent his education bill to Congress, he said:
“Both parties have been talking about education reform for quite a while. It’s time to come together to get it done, so that we can truthfully say in America: No child will be left behind, not one single child.”
He also promised local independence, adding:
“The agents of reform must be schools and school districts, not bureaucracy. One size does not fit all. Educational entrepreneurs should not be hindered by excessive rules and red tape and regulation.”
U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (Democrat, Massachusetts) became Bush’s unlikely education reform ally and proudly participated in the January 8, 2002 ceremony when the No Child Left Behind Act (“NCLB”) was signed into law. But Kennedy’s pride was short-lived: Several weeks later Bush announced his 2003 budget which, in addition to diverting $4 billion to private school tuitions and eliminating 40 education programs, fell $90 million short of the federal education dollars mandated by the NCLB.
Responding in an April 6, 2002 radio address, Senator Kennedy said:
“We cannot remain silent when the President now fails to fund his own education bill. It was a wonderful promise — but it has become a hollow promise.
“In fact, his budget proposal actually cuts funds for public school reform, while providing 4 billion dollars to private schools — and 600 billion dollars in new tax breaks for the wealthy.”
U.S. Senator Dodd (Democrat, Connecticut) objected also, voicing his 2003 budget protest in a Hartford Courant column:
“…When he signed the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush promised that the federal government would make sure schools would have the resources necessary to meet the three key requirements of the new law: closing the achievement gap for low-income students, minority students and students with disabilities; having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom; and holding schools accountable for all students performing at a high level.
“In February, with the ink on the new law not yet dry, the president submitted his new education budget to Congress, and the resources were not there.
“In fact, the president took an enormous step backward by proposing to cut federal support for the No Child Left Behind Act.
“For example, more than 10 million low-income children attend schools in areas that are eligible for federal assistance to hire and train teachers and buy textbooks, computers and other necessities. The president's education budget for next year would provide only 40 percent of the assistance that these schools need, leaving more than 6 million children behind. …
“The president also wants to cut federal support for critical after-school and bilingual education programs. This shortfall in resources would force roughly 25,000 children nationwide out of bilingual education and more than 30,000 children out of after-school programs.
“…In this year's State of the Union address, the president called for hiring and training more quality teachers to address a national shortage. Yet the president's new budget would eliminate high-quality training programs for nearly 20,000 teachers.”
To add insult to educational injury, Bush’s 2004 budget compounded the problem, cutting funding “drastically” for the new programs, as Senator Kennedy put it. The “hypocrisy is breathtaking,” he added.
Numerous educators and local officials have spoken out against Bush’s funding failures and the Act’s rigid standards, even as they try to comply. This Economist article explains the funding issue:
“The biggest ‘unfunded mandate’ is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This requires all public schools to test students, in order to improve their education. In theory, the act fully finances the new tests. In practice, say local officials, implementing the act requires changes in the whole education system, not just adding a few extra tests. The cost, they say, is $35 billion a year more than the act provides for.”
The National Education Association (“NEA”) condemned the Bush administration for turning the NCLB into an unfunded mandate in violation of the law itself. Indeed, the NCLB does contain this clause: "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal Government to...mandate a State or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act."
The NEA also cited a “General Accounting Office study that estimates that states will be required to expend between $1.9 and $5.3 billion of their own money to implement the testing provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act between 2002 and 2008.”
Bush’s failure to fund isn’t the only problem. According to NEA President Reg Weaver, "there is a problem with the rigid and unrealistic rules of the so-called 'No Child Left Behind' law when 87 percent of schools in Florida and 51 percent in Pennsylvania failed to meet federal standards this year."
Okay, so our states are now (1) required to comply with education reforms modeled on a failed and (some say) fraudulent system; (2) threatened with sanctions if they don’t comply; and (3) denied the very money that was promised them and that’s necessary to achieve compliance. So how does Bush respond? He (1) downplays the need for money; (2) lies about his budgets; and (3) portrays NCLB as a success.
Let’s start with Bush’s minimizing the need for money. Here’s how the White House responded to Senator Kennedy’s radio address:
"'We've seen in the past [that] money is not the answer,'" said spokeswoman Anne Womack. "'Most importantly, meaningful reform is being enacted to ensure that every child has the access to a top-rate education.'"
The Bush White House even denied imposing unfunded mandates, asserting that the states have the (obviously unrealistic) option of not taking the money at all.
As for Bush education budget lies, they started even before NCLB was enacted. An April 2001 analysis by the independent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that under the President’s 2002 budget, “education funding would grow 5.3 Percent” and that “the claimed 11.5 percent increase is a distortion.
More recently, David Corn deconstructed a Bush whopper made in a prepared speech in a Tennessee Elementary School on September 8, 2003:
September is back-to-school time, and Bush hit the road to promote his education policies. During a speech at a Nashville elementary school, he hailed his education record by noting that "the budget for next year boosts funding for elementary and secondary education to $53.1 billion. That's a 26-percent increase since I took office. In other words, we understand that resources need to flow to help solve the problems." A few things were untrue in these remarks. Bush's proposed elementary and secondary education budget for next year is $34.9 billion, not $53.1 billion, according to his own Department of Education. It's his total proposed education budget that is $53.1 billion. More importantly, there is no next-year "boost" in this budget. Elementary and secondary education received $35.8 billion in 2003. Bush's 2004 budget cuts that back nearly a billion dollars, and the overall education spending in his budget is the same as the 2003 level.
Bush lied in Jacksonville, Florida too:
“We've got a brand new reading initiative where we will have spent, since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, $1.2 billion for reading instruction. By the way, we're trying to promote curriculum which actually works. We want to make sure if we spend money on reading that children learn to read. We want to make sure as we spend money on reading, teachers know how to teach that which works...”
That statement runs counter to the teacher training and other cuts pointed out in Senator Dodd’s column, Bush’s Even Start literacy program cuts, his proposal to de-federalize Head Start, and the fact that states have been lowering their education standards in order to avoid NCLB sanctions.
In his Jacksonville speech, Bush also touted low-income tutoring and parental options to transfer their children away from failing schools. But there is a “lack of resources for students eligible to transfer out of a failing school.” Moreover, Bush shortchanged Title I funding, the primary program for economically disadvantaged students, with a budget request that “falls 33% short of what Congress considers full funding under the law.” This means that “more than half of all poor children eligible for additional instruction and intensive services will be left out.”
In Jacksonville Bush defined a “hopeful America” as a place “where children say, you know, I'm going to get an education early and I'm going to go to college.” But as Senator Dodd observed:
“…the president's budget cuts would cause hundreds of thousands of potential college students to lose financial assistance. And the president even proposed putting college out of the reach of even more middle-class and low-income students by increasing the interest on their student loans by thousands of dollars.”
An October 21, 2003 New York Times Editorial entitled Bait-and-Switch on Public Education condemned “the Bush administration's mishandling of education policy generally, and especially its decision to withhold more than $6 billion from the landmark No Child Left Behind Act, the supposed centerpiece of the administration's domestic policy.” The editorial concluded with these words:
“The Bush administration wanted to trumpet No Child Left Behind, then fail to pay for it — without the voters taking notice. But Americans, who value education, can tell a bait-and-switch when they see one. If this issue comes back to bite the G.O.P. in the next election, the party will have only itself to blame.”