The Magazine

Bush's Education Semi-reform

Don't open the champagne bottles yet

Mar 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 25 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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THE BUSH TEAM made a strong start in education, sending forth its ambitious school-reform plan early and with much hoopla, cozying up to key members of Congress, including ranking education-committee Democrats Ted Kennedy and George Miller, recruiting every Republican in sight to cheer for the proposal, and barnstorming the country on its behalf. Many positive vibes followed.

This is a wide-ranging plan, 28 pages even in sketchy form, meant to bring federal education policy into the 21st century, revamp dozens of failed programs, and redirect billions of wasted dollars. (It also adds more programs and billions.)

At its heart is the demand that public schools receiving federal education dollars be held to account for their students' academic results, that rewards come to those that boost achievement, that sanctions follow failure, and that progress be monitored via testing. Lots of testing. Texas-style testing, with states required to examine every child annually in grades 3 through 8 and with the federally managed National Assessment serving as outside auditor. (Unlike Clinton, with his proposed national test, however, Bush would have each state select its own test, based on standards of its own choosing.)

Early press accounts and political reactions erroneously focused on the program's faint whiff of vouchers -- instantly dubbed a "deal-breaker" by every Democrat in town. Yet this is no voucher program. Only if sundry other interventions have no effect -- and not sooner than six years after the bill's enactment -- would a failing public school face the possibility that its federally aided pupils might leave for private schools. If the accountability program succeeds, however, that day will never dawn, no child will ever change schools and no vouchers will flow. To those who want Washington to foster school choice, this was a letdown. So, too, was the plan's neglect of "portability," the idea that federal aid dollars should be apportioned to students rather than school systems and should follow them to whatever schools their states and communities let them attend. (Though many forms of school choice are now widespread, Washington's LBJ-era programs still pump their dollars into the student's school district of residence.)

We know from Jay Greene's recent evaluation of Jeb Bush's Florida program that the merest threat of vouchers can speedily prod awful public schools to become at least a little better. That's the reasoning behind brother George's proposal to deploy vouchers as the ultimate weapon in his accountability arsenal. This, of course, was also the feature of the Bush plan that appealed to conservatives nervous about its big-spending, big-government elements. Even before its unveiling, however, the White House began to fudge the school-choice parts. Indeed, the president's people have hinted that, at the end of the day, testing is the only part of their many-splendored education program that they will die for. As word of this filtered through Washington, alarming Republicans who favor choice and are wary of mandatory testing, liberal Democrats proposed tens of billions more for existing programs. Though the new Bush budget is more generous toward education than anything else, it cannot win that sort of bidding war.

Thus within days of his plan's grand debut, President Bush was disheartening the right with his lack of ardor for vouchers and rankling the left with his comparative tightfistedness. Meanwhile, the education blob began rallying its usual defenses against testing and accountability.