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Leaving Education Reform Behind

Bush will sign the bill. But there's not much good left in it.

Jan 14, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 17 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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IN HIS SHOWCASE political event of the week, President George W. Bush will finally get to sign the "No Child Left Behind Act," his cherished education bill, which cleared Congress in December. It is already being described as a revolution in federal education policy, a triumph of bipartisanship and good sense that promises to fix what ails American schools, teachers, and students.

The reality, alas, is far more modest. The bill contains some useful small reforms in this vast and troubled realm, and one provision with the potential to make a sizable difference: the requirement that states test all their children in math and science every year in grades three through eight.

That's about all that remains of President Bush's once-ambitious plan to overhaul LBJ-era education programs. Early on, the White House said it would accept only a bipartisan bill, thus giving a veto over its contents to Democrats Ted Kennedy in the Senate and George Miller in the House. They seized the opportunity, throttling the president's other two key ideas--choice for parents and flexibility for states--and boosting the education budget by billions. The one major issue on which they (and their new colleague Jim Jeffords) failed to prevail was an ill-conceived effort to turn the federal "special education" program for disabled youngsters into a pricey off-budget entitlement.

The resulting measure is, therefore, a welcome improvement on current law but no revolution. Still, it's a political win for Bush, one of the most important domestic accomplishments of his first year, a boost to the GOP's quest to become "the education party," and, if energetically implemented, an opportunity to elevate the achievement of American students, especially the poorest among them.

Once the popping flashbulbs and bipartisan hugs cease and the policy (and media) focus shifts back to terrorism and the economy, the education world will turn to the quiet but crucial matter of translating into schoolhouse practice the dozens of programs and hundreds of provisions in this thousand-page bill. That sounds like a bureaucratic yawner, but in truth it matters quite a lot. To avoid deadlock, Senate-House conferees punted some sticky issues to the Education Department to resolve. Among them: determining what constitutes acceptable state tests; establishing criteria by which to approve a state's school accountability plan; defining "qualified" teachers; and deciding how broadly to interpret a clause that lets schools avoid sanctions if their students make lesser gains than those required under the bill's "adequate yearly progress" provision. With such weighty matters come many smaller issues, and their handling will determine what effect this legislation actually has in millions of separate classrooms.

History offers no grounds for optimism that this will be done quickly or well. Congress habitually builds such long timelines into these measures that the most important changes need not even be made until someone else's term in office. (States have five years, for example, to comply with the new testing requirement.) The last time around, Bill Clinton's Education Department dawdled so long in implementing the 1994 education amendments that today--seven years later--most states still don't comply with some of their core provisions.

Such matters are traditionally entrusted to change-averse civil servants overseen by inexperienced political appointees, who are watched closely by their masters lest they offend key governors or congressmen or make it harder for the president's party in upcoming elections. Implementation thus becomes the stuff of interminable meetings, countless forms, endless delays, and multiple extensions and waivers, while very little changes in the classroom.

This fate could befall "No Child Left Behind." But Education Secretary Rod Paige and his team are gearing up for a different approach. Indeed, they see this as their real debut--the White House staff having tightly controlled the legislative phase. Paige is quiet and self-effacing, but his strong will and administrative acumen made a big difference in Houston's sprawling school system, where he excelled at distinguishing areas where schools should be free to innovate from those requiring close central monitoring. If he and his lieutenants at the Education Department approach states in a similar vein, they could reverse the dysfunctional tendency of federal education officials to meddle in all the small stuff while paying scant attention to the big issues, such as whether children are learning and rich-poor gaps are narrowing.