By Lorraine Woellert
As President Bush prepares to sign a landmark education reform bill, he's winning high marks for making good on his top domestic priority at the same time he's waging war on terrorism. But after almost a year of work getting the 1,000-page bill through Congress, the hard part is yet to come. This is a compromise with several weaknesses that could continue to make meaningful education reform a distant dream.
A major flaw of the bill, which Bush is expected to sign into law in early January, is its lack of teeth to punish states that don't comply. Senate and House lawmakers struck from the final version a House provision to withhold federal money from states that fail to meet new standards. Lawmakers say imposing federal sanctions on states that don't improve test scores was a political nonstarter.
Notes Senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.): "No one wanted to sanction a state in an election year." Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former Assistant Education Secretary during the Reagan Administration, concurs that enforcement would've been difficult. "Bush wanted a bill, and he thought something was better than nothing," Finn says.
Indeed, the President got only some of what he wanted in the Elementary & Secondary Education Act of 2001. He won strict new requirements that will force pupils in grades 3 through 8 to take standardized tests in reading and math and to show progress from year to year. Test scores will be made public, and parents with children in poor-performing schools will be allowed to transfer them to a better, local public school.
However, Bush failed to get backing for a so-called voucher program that would give parents tax credits for sending their children to private school. And Democrats and Republicans compromised on giving states more flexibility in how they spend their federal dollars "It's just a B, not an A, says Finn. "It's a modest improvement on current law. Nothing to break out the champagne for."
How Bush reacts to requests from state officials that he waive the bill's tougher provisions will be key. Some state-education lobbyists say the Administration already has quietly assured them he'll give wide latitude to states that have trouble implementing expensive standardized testing and tough-to-meet accountability measures. And with states facing a 2005 deadline for putting the reforms in place, a big rush of waiver requests will likely land on Bush's desk in 2004, when he and several governors and Capitol Hill lawmakers are running for reelection.
To get a glimpse of the huge task facing Bush and Education Secretary Roderick Paige, just look back to 1994, the last time Congress attempted to impose accountability and academic standards on the states. Seven years later, many states still haven't set academic standards, yet they continue to collect federal money, which accounts for about 7% of most states' school funding.
Some 30 states have won at least partial exemptions from complying with the 1994 law. "The test of Bush's commitment to low-income kids will be seen in the waiver process," says Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst at the Education Trust, a Washington (D.C.) think tank. "If he stands in the Rose Garden and signs this bill, then allows Rod Paige to sign waivers from the requirements of this bill, he's accomplished something for himself but not for poor kids."
Education Undersecretary Eugene Hickok contends that the bill's real power to change the system will come with the publication of individual schools' test scores. "The heart of the bill -- the testing -- probably has more potential to drive change and reform down the road than anything else," Hickok says. "Once you get information available in a public way -- the status of schools and students -- things start changing pretty dramatically."
Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, agrees. Withholding federal money from failing school systems is self-defeating, he notes. The bill's power comes from provisions allowing local parents to track a school's progress and pull their kids out of poor-performing schools, Kennedy says. Perhaps. But between the budget crunch and the politicking, serious school reform probably remains a long way off.
Woellert covers Congress for BusinessWeek in the Washington bureau
Edited by Thane Peterson