Remarks to The Conservative Club of Alexandria, Virginia
When I was extended the generous invitation to speak with you this evening, I was asked to discuss the “No Child Left Behind” education plan passed by Congress in December and signed into law earlier this month. I felt the best place to start was to ask the simple question, “Left Behind What?” What is this thing, this entity, that we as a society deem so valuable that we would not want anyone to be left out of it? Opportunity? The American Dream? But we are, after all, talking about a federal education law, and the commodity it offers is remedy in the form of federal education programs, bought with federal dollars and wrapped in federal regulations, with a card that reads “more is better.” Now that we’ve got it, what are we to make of this package? That’s what I’d like to discuss tonight, and I look very much forward to hearing your questions and comments in the period following.
It is from this perspective, as an advocate of free market-based education reforms, that I turn to the question at hand. I have not come tonight to praise “No Child Left Behind,” nor to bury it. The law that some euphemistically refer to as the Bush-Kennedy Education Plan is now the law of the land. I would like to first take a few minutes to provide a little background and context, and share some of what I observed as a policy analyst during what many felt was a rather extraordinary legislative process. I’d like to then discuss what I heard from some respected conservative Members who voted against the law, and what I feel are its five important accomplishments. Lastly, given that the plan is now law and reflecting on the President’s State of the Unions speech Tuesday night, where do we go from here?
The plan’s title, as has been widely reported, comes from a phrase used by Marian Wright Edelman and her Children’s Defense Fund, who actually hold a trademark on it that they signify with a little R with a circle around it whenever they put it in print. But the phrase also has prior roots in Ronald Reagan’s Acceptance Address given at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, where he declared, “We have to move ahead, but we are not going to leave anyone behind.”
In that same speech, Reagan went on to say, “Our problems are both acute and chronic, yet all we hear from those in positions of leadership are the same tired proposals for more Government tinkering, more meddling and more control – all of which led us to this sorry state in the first place.” It would not be difficult to apply some of those same observations to the state of American education at the start of this Administration, or today. With one crucial exception: the rise of parental choice as the instrument to improving American public education.
A Bipartisan Bill
House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner made it very clear from the beginning of this process that this was not the bill he would have written. “There is no greater friend of parental choice in education than I am,” Boehner announced at the outset of the process, when it first became clear that the Administration had taken vouchers off the table. And Boehner has continued to demonstrate bold leadership for choice at every opportunity.
But President Bush asked Chairman Boehner to bring to his desk a bill based on his “Leave No Child” education plan unveiled in January, and to make sure it was a bipartisan bill, and it would be hard to imagine any chairman doing a more effective job of that than Boehner did. The latter stipulation presented George Miller, Democrat of California, friend of the teacher unions and Ranking Member of the House Education Committee, a virtual line item veto over whatever bill Mr. Boehner brought to a committee vote.
Many conservatives who supported school vouchers were in uproar over the decision to omit vouchers from the plan. “Leave No Democrat Behind” was one quip I heard often. But all were mindful of the fact that voucher propositions in California and Michigan had gotten trounced, each by about 70-30, in November. “I’m a realist,” the President said in May, “I’m not going to change my opinion, but it’s not going to change the votes, either.”
In choosing to pursue a bipartisan bill, President Bush opted to focus on certain of the proposals in his plan, matched with some counterpart proposals by Democratic leaders Kennedy and Miller. Vouchers and those other elements of what he had campaigned on that the Left would object to most violently would be abandoned. Similarly, “that fantastic Senator” Kennedy could keep, with the blessing of White House negotiators, that which was most valuable to him and his constituents.
After the Republican bill, HR 1, had passed the House of Representatives, and a Democratic bill that was very much business as usual, albeit at a much higher funding level, had passed the Senate, it became the work of a Congressional Conference Committee to reconcile the two versions. The goal of each was to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, representing the largest single chunk of federal Department of Education funds. The last time that had been achieved was in 1994, with the Improving America’s Schools Act. This process had been attempted in the previous Congress during the Clinton Administration, but due to partisan gridlock the process stalled and was not resumed.
As one Senior Republican staff member involved with the “Leave No Child Behind” negotiations said, had the negotiations dragged on and needed to be resumed again this year, they believed strongly that “the glass would not be half empty, it will be completely empty,” with regard to Democratic willingness to accept Republican reforms, especially among Senate Democrats with the voting majority they enjoy in light of Senator Jefford’s departure from the GOP.
Accountability – What it Means
Increased accountability for student achievement is the law’s centerpiece. President Bush said last August that the bar for gauging adequate school performance must be “rigorous, achievable, targeted to all groups and raised gradually.” He added that tests within a state “must be comparable from place to place, and year to year, so parents know who’s making progress and who’s falling behind.” Republicans held their ground that this premise not pave the way for any sort of national test.
The law requires states to test annually all students in grades 3-8. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test will be administered to a small population in each state as independent benchmark to confirm those assessments. Parents will be provided with annual report cards containing information about the quality of their children’s schools.
For failing schools, those that do not make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years, certain improvements and corrective actions are required. These include public school choice and supplemental services, which I’ll turn to in a few moments. The White House has a list of some 3,000 schools that immediately fall into this class of “failing schools,” but they have not released it.
Since the bill was made public in recent months, the plan has come under attack from some conservatives. Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, an emerging standard bearer for libertarian Republicans, was one of the 41 House Members to vote against the final bill. Flake explained his vote by saying, “Real education reform would have cut many of the strings the federal government has tied states and local school districts up in over the past few decades. While there are some bright spots in H.R. 1, for the most part it expands the federal role in education at the expense of local control. That is hardly reform.”
What good does increased accountability bring without portability, without parental choice, was one question voiced by some critics?
In his Inaugural Address, President George W. Bush proclaimed, “Together, we will reclaim America’s schools, before ignorance and apathy claim more young lives.” Reclaim America’s schools from what, or whom? And to what extent did the bipartisan “No Child Left Behind” succeed in that critical reclaiming?
Put differently, what did the President gain by removing vouchers from the table, and was it ultimately worth it?
5 Accomplishments of ‘No Child Left Behind’
To address that question, I’d like to discuss what I see as the law’s five valuable accomplishments:
1. Under the law’s supplemental services provision, parents of children stuck in chronically failing public schools will be able to use their entire share of Title I aid – approximately $500 to $1,000 per child – to purchase private tutoring services to help boost their kid’s achievement. This is the first time ever that Title I funds have been allowed to go directly to private or faith-based education providers. To be eligible for this, schools must fail to demonstrate adequate progress for two consecutive years, and the agreement makes that retroactive, so that failing schools qualify immediately rather than waiting two more years.
2. The law essentially shut down a malignant federal bilingual education program that had become a harmful obstacle to progress for the nation’s 3.5 million English learners, three-quarters of whom are Spanish-speaking. It threw out a particularly detrimental regulation that had mandated a strong funding preference for programs that emphasized instruction in students’ non-English native language. Money is turned over to states in block grants and states are required to demonstrate annual progress improving English fluency. It gave increased options to immigrant parents to make it easier for their children to learn English, and required that teachers of English learners be fluent in English themselves.
3. So that school districts attract knowledgeable teachers into the classroom, the law provides significant flexibility allowing federal funds to develop nonconventional pathways for placing mid-career professionals in K-12 teaching jobs. “No Child Left Behind” eliminates federal regulations that new teachers be products of the certification mills operated by the education schools and state bureaucracies. That sort of teacher training was what Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute had in mind when described the curricula at many teachers’ colleges as “Anything But Knowledge” – caring more that new teachers have politically correct attitudes than that they possess the knowledge of their subject area required to increase student achievement. The new law also lets states develop value-added assessments to show how much teachers are helping their pupils increase academic achievement.
4. The law’s “Reading First” initiative promotes explicit, systematic, phonics-based instruction. Block grants to states will establish comprehensive reading programs anchored in proven scientific research.
5. Because this is an after-dinner speech, they told me they’d allow me a few liberties, and if I can take a small one here I would make Education Savings Accounts my number 5. Even though it passed in a separate tax bill, ESAs represent last year’s second major victory for parental choice in education. The law allows parents to invest up to $2,000 annually in tax-free savings accounts that can be used to pay for college tuition or K-12 private or public education expenses. ESAs and supplemental services are two major steps forward for the principle that parents can best choose where and how to educate their children.
So, that, plus about 1,100 pages of legislative wording, is the package the President and the Congress have made into a law called “No Child Left Behind.” It does not include vouchers, but it does include unprecedented steps for portability of Title I dollars not to mention a number of substantive, valuable education reforms.
Where To Go From Here?
Which brings us to the next crucial question: where do we go from here?
February 20 will be a very important day for school choice advocates when the United States Supreme Court will hear argument concerning the Cleveland’s state-approved school voucher program. It is interesting that the Court chose to rule on a very specific, critical question: Does a program designed to rescue economically disadvantaged children from a failing public school by providing scholarships that may be used in private, religious, or suburban public schools violate the First Amendment because in the early stages of the program, most of the schools that have agreed to take on the scholarship program are religiously affiliated?
With the addition of Pennsylvania last year, there are now 6 states with tuition tax credits. A study of the Arizona tuition tax credit by the Cato Institute showed that between 1998 and 2000, it generated $32 million, and funded 19,000 scholarships. That, combined with Arizona’s very friendly charter school law, make it a model for educational freedom hopefully more states will move to emulate.
Congressman Pete Hoekstra is another champion of parental choice who has been leading the charge for a federal tuition tax credit program, a crucial front in the school choice debate. Charter schools are another. Last fall, more than 2,300 charter schools in 34 states were serving over a half a million students. One study showed that nearly one in four American students already attend private, charter or magnet alternatives to their neighborhood government school. The pressure of competition is making itself known.
Here in Virginia, our new Governor in Mark Warner supported charter schools in his campaign, and was accepting of the idea of improving Virginia’s notoriously weak charter school law to allow for university-sponsored charters. Several bills proposed in Richmond this month would seek to strengthen those laws, some by offering an appeals process when local school districts reject charter applications, or, as is often the case, refuse to even review an application. Meanwhile, last session the tuition tax credit bill made it out of the education committee in the House of Delegates for the first time, and leaders in the Legislature are back with an improved proposal this year.
Right now is a critical time in Richmond if these changes are going to happen this year. Take the time to write your elected Virginia officials, send them an email if you like, to put pressure on them to support real education reform. It will make an important difference for them to hear from Members of esteemed groups like the Conservative Club of Alexandria.
The President in his State of the Union address the other night once again discussed education prominently in his domestic agenda. He spoke of upgrading teacher colleges and teacher training and a major recruiting drive with the goal of “A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom.” We did a Lexington Institute paper a couple of years ago called “Could Milton Friedman Teach Economics in Your Local High School?” And the surprising answer was, often, no, the Nobel Prize winner could not, unless he were willing to first go through one of the process-heavy, content-light accredited schools of education. Alternative certification programs, underway in states like Tennessee and New Jersey, allow principals to hire liberal arts or science graduates or career switchers with expertise in their area of instruction, and train them on the job.
I believe that combining the three approaches of (1) hiring the best candidates without regard to ed-school credentials, (2) training them on the job, and then (3) evaluating their success in helping students gain academically throughout the year, is the best way to meet President Bush’s goal of a quality teacher at the front of every classroom. “No Child Left Behind” was a strong step in the right direction, but now the real work shifts to the state level to bring about further reforms.
The other major focus for federal reform in Congress this year will be to undertake the reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Special education programs have experienced explosive growth since 1975 when that law was first passed and currently about 12 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren are enrolled in special ed.
So these will be some of the challenges we will face as advocates of genuine education reform in 2002. I look forward to hearing some of your thoughts on these or other challenges.
I am one who believes it possible to begin now, for the first time, to foresee victory in our long struggle to save American public education through free choice and the power of competition. We have seen critical recent advances: the extremely impressive record in Florida of vouchers actually improving public schools; the tremendous growth of the charter school movement; tuition tax credits on the rise, the beachhead parental choice has established at the federal level with the new supplemental services and education savings account laws.
Once the results showing how school choice benefits young people, particularly the urban poor, become known, the genie just may be out of the bottle. American public education is desperate for the sort of infusion of innovation that can only come through allowing competition and market forces to work their magic. That is how we will ultimately improve America’s public schools. In the meantime, we can be sure the teacher unions and their allies in government will continue to be ruthless in fighting to stop us. President Bush has laid the groundwork with his emphasis on accountability in “No Child Left Behind.” As he said the other night, the first step is to focus on results. And in many cases like the ones we have just discussed, the next steps are clear. Hopefully, the progress we have made in recent months will provide some of momentum. That may ultimately be the test by which “No Child Left Behind” is judged.
—Don Soifer is Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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