Bush Plan Fails Schools

Wrapped in compassionate rhetoric, the President's proposals center on mandatory testing voucher programs that would leave millions of children behind.

By Stan Karp

Five years ago, the Republican Presidential candidate campaigned to abolish the U.S. Department of Education and drastically cut back the federal role in education.

This year, a new Republican President is pledging to dramatically expand the federal role in education and make it his number one domestic priority.

Unfortunately, change and progress are very different things.

Large areas of bipartisan agreement between George W. Bush and congressional Democrats make passage of significant new federal education legislation likely this year. But it’s virtually certain that such legislation will not include the resources and programs needed to make dramatic improvements in school districts around the nation. Instead, education advocates will have their work cut out for them fighting to put better options — like more dollars and targeted classroom supports — into the potential federal package, and keeping the worst ones — vouchers and more tests — out.

The key battle will be over Bush’s proposal to tie federal aid to mandated annual testing. But the Administration is also seeking “to end the 35-year history of Great Society-style education policies,” in the words of one of the President’s many ideologically-charged education advisors (see sidebar). Every major federal education program is up for reauthorization in the near future (Title I, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and Head Start), and Bush’s highly touted plan is the opening salvo in an effort to redefine federal education policy in new, conservative directions.


For a dubiously-elected President who comes into office with historically low levels of support among African Americans and who has a well-deserved anti-poor, pro-business image, education is an “outreach” issue. It’s one of the few areas that allows Bush to posture, however disingenuously, as an ally of poor communities of color, particularly those that have been badly served by public education.

During his campaign, Bush railed against the “soft bigotry of low expectations” to promote a school reform strategy based on punitive high stakes testing. Now in office, he has appropriated the slogan of the Children’s Defense Fund, “Leave No Child Behind” as the motto of a 28-page position paper on remaking the federal role in education. By focusing on the lowest performing schools and the racial dimensions of the achievement gap, Bush gives his education rhetoric an edge and an urgency it would otherwise lack. However, he uses this rhetoric to frame policy proposals for vouchers and high stakes tests that would actually reinforce the “hard bigotry” of institutional racism in education, for example, by promoting more tracking, higher dropout rates, and persistent funding inequities.

In fact, combining rhetorical concern for the victims of inequality with policies that perpetuate it may be an operative definition of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”

Although the President’s policy paper left out key details — like budget figures — it staked out positions that will shape debate over the federal education agenda. They include:

  • A call for annual, federally-mandated testing in 3rd through 8th grades in reading and math. This call to leave no child untested could dramatically impact states and school districts already sagging under expanded testing mandates.
  • The restructuring of dozens of federal programs, many targeted to specific needs like class-size reduction and after-school programs, into general categories of block aid that states can use with more flexibility, and less concern for equity, to “improve student achievement” (i.e., raise test scores).
  • An overhaul of Title I, the largest federal education program, that would allow the introduction of a voucher system to encourage students to “seek other options,” including private or religious schools.
  • An expanded early childhood reading initiative that would fund a limited range of phonics-based approaches to reading instruction.
  • Increased funds and support for charter schools.
  • Reduced support for bilingual education, and a requirement that non-English speaking students receive instruction entirely in English within three years of entering the school system.

With the exception of the voucher proposal, Bush’s plan generally drew high praise from congressional Democrats. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) gushed about “overwhelming areas of agreement.” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who released his own “Three Rs” education package, said there was maybe “80 percent agreement” with Bush. Even Major Owens, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus from New York and a supporter of the Miller-Kildee House bill (HR 340) that is a liberal alternative to the Bush plan (see below), said he thought there was maybe “75 percent agreement.” Given the partisan polarization that kept the last Congress from reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for the first time since the mid-1960s, this reaction suggests the likelihood of an early compromise despite significant differences on details.


Vouchers remain a major area of political division, but are not likely to block a legislative deal. Bush’s proposal to give students in poor schools $1,500 vouchers if test scores don’t increase within three years has political and ideological uses. It redeems a promise to his conservative base and promotes the fiction that vouchers are a strategy to empower poor parents. But as a “school improvement strategy,” federally-subsidized voucher proposals remain a marginal ideological issue. At just 7 percent of all school spending, the impact of federal funds in this area is limited and largely symbolic. And at $1,500, the President’s vouchers would scarcely finance transportation costs let alone pay tuition for the few families that might buy their way into private schools (ironically assuring that many thousands of other children would be “left behind” in abandoned public schools).

Ultimately, the real voucher battle is likely to be determined by the same Supreme Court that installed Bush as president. It will eventually have to rule on how far states can go in funneling public funds to private and religious schools through vouchers, and that decision will send the issue back to state legislatures for further battles.

With Congress divided, Bush seems resigned to limited efforts to keep vouchers in the mix, while he pursues more attainable privatization goals by promoting charter schools and tuition tax credits.

According to the Feb. 1 Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bush met with Catholic school leaders and inadvertently spoke in a “more direct, candid way than he does in public when talking about the controversial issues of abortion and school vouchers.” Noting that “audio of the closed meeting was inadvertently fed into the White House press room,” the paper reported that Bush talked about the need to make vouchers more attractive to voters, who have defeated every state voucher initiative that has been on the ballot.

“Those of us who agree on these issues must figure out better ways to position from a PR perspective,” Bush told Catholic leaders in what he apparently thought was a private session. “Vouchers is the wrong word. It ought to be opportunity scholarships or freedom initiatives or something.” The President said that he might have to settle for a demonstration voucher program in the Washington, D.C. public schools.

Bush has higher hopes for charter schools and tuition tax credits. A significant increase in funding for charter schools will certainly be sought. The Lieberman bill already proposes $200 million for charters and inter-district choice plans. While charters and public school choice may be legitimate parts of school improvement strategies, at the level of state and federal policy they invariably compete with efforts to target resources to the neediest public schools or to promote general improvement for all schools. Pockets of privilege, new forms of tracking, selective admissions policies, and elite magnet schools are problematic aspects of charter and choice plans that can signal further retreat from the broad commitments required to serve all children well.

Similarly, Bush is proposing tax credits for private school tuition that some call a “back door” voucher plan. His proposals would allow families with incomes up to $160,000 a year to put $5,000 annually in tax-free “education savings accounts” that could be used for tuition at private or religious schools. The result could be billions in lost tax revenues and subsidies for private tuition. Many Democrats, like Lieberman, who oppose vouchers, nevertheless support such tax breaks.


Another area of overlap with Congressional Democrats, albeit with some limits, involves collapsing dozens of federal programs into a pool of money that states could use with “flexibility.” Bush would lump targeted federal funds for class-size reduction, professional development, after-school programs, drug and safety education, e-rate technology subsidies and school renovation into a single pool that states could access in return for “accountability results” (i.e., higher test scores). Bush would also expand “charter state” agreements whereby states enter into performance agreements with the U.S. Department of Education that free them from regulatory requirements, presumably including civil rights and equity protections, again in exchange for meeting testing goals. Although the Lieberman bill would target more federal funds to poor schools, it too would consolidate federal programs into “five, goal-oriented titles” that “demand measurable progress from states.”

By contrast, the House bill sponsored by George Miller (D-Calif.) and Dale Kildee (R-Mich.) would continue more targeted programs such as the e-rate, class-size reduction, and afterschool programs. In making his proposal, Miller cited “the history of reduced funding and weakened accountability that comes with block grants.” Miller’s bill also rejects Bush’s three-year limit on bilingual instruction which Ciro Rodriguez (D-Tex.) called “strictly a political decision, it is not a pedagogical decision.”

Miller’s legislation would provide $110 billion in new spending over five years, compared to the $1.6 billion increase that Bush said he would seek for next year. Miller called the figures released by Bush in late February “very disappointing,” noting that they represented “a smaller increase than education received from Congress in four of the last five years.”


Bush’s call for annual testing is drawing the most immediate alarm from education advocates. Though such testing is not an explicit part of either the Miller or Lieberman alternatives, Miller has said he supports it, and both Democratic plans invoke accountability rhetoric that makes accommodation to Bush’s efforts to tie federal aid to test scores a real possibility. In fact, years of promoting standards and tests by the Clinton Administration and Democrats in Congress and state houses has helped lay the groundwork for Bush’s plan. But where Clinton pushed unsuccessfully for creating national tests, the Bush plan would require individual states to dramatically expand and reshape their own testing programs.

Less than a third of all states currently test students in reading and math every year. Most states would have to add new annual tests, while deciding what to do with their existing test programs, particularly those in other subjects like science and social studies which could get pushed aside.

Linking federal funds and sanctions to test scores will also turn more tests from diagnostic tools into “high stakes” exams. As happened in Texas, such policies will encourage narrowly-targeted test coaching and curriculum pollution. Even where these strategies boost short-term results, the progress is often illusory. For example, the highly-publicized gains on Bush’s Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, upon which much of his reputation as a successful education reformer is based, did not show up on other measures of achievement like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the major federal testing project (whose own independent diagnostic value would be seriously compromised by the Bush plan). One can also expect more cheating scandals, and more pushout and retention policies that manipulate test results in significant ways, as was the case in Texas.

Calling the Bush plan “a major threat to assessment reform efforts that will particularly harm poor children,” FairTest Executive Director Monty Neill declared, “This unnecessary and unhelpful federal intrusion into the process of school reform will force more states to direct resources toward turning schools into test-prep programs. Yet research has demonstrated that the states which administer the most tests and attach the highest consequences to them tend to have the weakest education programs.”

Defeating Bush’s testing regimen will be a major legislative battle. In the past, much of the opposition to national tests and standards reflected resistance to creation of a national curriculum. Bush’s reliance on state tests, and some flexibility in letting states implement the program, could diffuse this opposition. While Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) has announced plans to introduce a “Fair and Accurate Testing” bill that would challenge many of the worst testing practices, many other Democrats have long embraced the simplistic equation of accountability and achievement with testing and may back Bush’s proposals.

Educators and researchers know that test scores alone provide a very limited picture of educational success or failure. Multiple measures of academic performance, classroom observations, project- and portfolio-based assessments, a range of indicators from attendance and drop-out rates to graduation rates and post-graduation success, measures of teacher preparation and quality, indicators of parent participation and satisfaction are all needed if the goal is to assess the effectiveness of a particular school or education program. In addition, legitimate assessment strategies would measure “opportunity to learn” inputs and equity of resources so that the victims of educational failure were not the only ones to face “high stakes” consequences.

But if the goal is a political one — to posture about “getting tough,” to justify disinvestment in the most struggling schools, to drive multicultural curriculum reforms, equity concerns, and more pluralistic, bottom-up approaches to school reform out of the system — then standardized tests may do just fine.


Such uses of testing in the service of larger, ideologically-driven policy objectives is exactly what some of Bush’s education advisors are proposing. Nina Shokraii Rees, a former Heritage Foundation researcher and current advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, sees an opening to remake federal policy on a broad scale. “Standards, choice, and fiscal and legal autonomy in exchange for boosting student test scores increasingly are the watchwords of education reform in America,” Rees has written. “The principle can be used in programs that apply to whole districts as well as entire states. Importantly, it lays the groundwork for a massive overhaul of education at the federal level in much the same way that welfare reform began.”

Similarly, longtime conservative school warriors Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch have urged the Bush Administration to remember that “today’s great challenge” is “not expanding access or delivering services. It is boosting student performance.” They suggest “guiding principles” such as offering “freedom in return for results” and “power to the people.”

“Washington should reign in monopolies and protect the interests of consumers — in this case children and parents,” they have suggested. The Administration should “fund children not institutions” and “use the bully pulpit” to “speak on behalf of needy children and their families.” For the Republican Administration these guidelines translate into using populist rhetoric to attack teacher unions, promote market-driven reform and privatization plans, and to attack the very idea of universal public education as a “monopoly” that should be broken up — all in the name of helping the poor.

How effective such ideologically-driven efforts will be remains to be seen. To some extent they will be undercut by the pitiful inadequacy of the Administration’s proposals, which aside from more tests, offer little to struggling schools. For example, Bush passionately professes concern for the 70 percent of urban students who don’t read at grade level. (He also typically bases his reading program on questionable research that appears biased towards heavily prescripted versions of phonics-based instruction.) But the most striking feature of the program is its severely limited scope. Bush’s proposed tax cut would deliver 128 times more dollars to the richest 1 percent of the population than he would spend on his reading initiative. Inevitably, the great majority of those 4th graders will remain left behind.

Bush’s proposals include no major school construction initiative (aside from a small investment in schools for military personnel and Native Americans). There is no serious effort to address child poverty or health care issues. In fact Bush’s tax proposals, the supposed centerpiece of his economic priorities, don’t include a single dollar in tax relief or tax credits for families with the nation’s 24 million poorest children. While families making up to $160,000 would get tax credits for private school tuition, families with half of all Black and Latino children would receive nothing. Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax plan (including $600 billion for the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent) is one thousand times larger than the additional $1.6 billion he has proposed spending on schools that serve 40 million children.

Rhetoric and tests can go only so far in covering up such priorities. As one of the few outspoken Congressional critics of the Bush plan, Wellstone (D-Minn) declared, “I am afraid that his plan could set up millions of vulnerable kids for failure, leaving us with another dose of mostly symbolic politics at the expense of poor children and their families. The education reform framework that the new administration is developing could do a great deal of additional damage to the children in America’s most troubled public schools.”

“It’s clear that we have failed to provide all children with the same tools for success,” Wellstone continued. “And given Bush’s other spending priorities it seems certain there will be little if anything left to finance his efforts to leave no child behind. Before we threaten to withhold billions from schools in the name of accountability, politicians and education leaders at all levels, from the White House on down, must first be held accountable to give children what they need to learn.”

Defeating Bush’s testing scheme will take effective lobbying and organizing efforts. But nearly every school district in the country has some stake in blocking annual, federally-mandated, high-stakes testing. Resolutions and active protests from local school boards, parent groups, professional associations and teacher unions could help change Bush’s plans. They could also encourage public examination of the impact that high stakes testing is having on schools around the country, and of why legitimate concerns about assessment and student achievement must be paired with policies that make real school improvement possible.

In the immortal words of the verbally-challenged President: “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?” Like the grammar in his question, Bush’s education proposal gets the answers all wrong.

For more on the Bush plan and testing proposals, contact FairTest at www.fairtest.org or visit Rethinking Schools Online at www.rethinkingschools.org/special_reports/bushplan/bushplan.shtml.

Stan Karp (stankarp@aol.com) is a Rethinking Schools editor. He teaches high school English and journalism in Paterson, NJ.