Faith without works

Editor's note: As Democrats gathered in Boston to nominate John Kerry, Gadfly critiqued the Democratic education platform (see Napping 'til November). Since turnabout is fair play, this week we've invited a Democrat - Progressive Policy Institute education director Andy Rotherham, of Eduwonk fame - to do the same to the GOP.

So the Republicans did decide to pay attention to education during their convention in New York. Secretary of Education Rod Paige was one of the only cabinet secretaries to address the delegates. And, if history is any guide, this president usually turns to education when he's in political trouble. The President will likely sound some important educational themes, and probably propose some worthwhile new ideas. But, in the case of this president, there is even a greater than average dissonance between rhetoric, promises, and actual accomplishments. In fact, the Bush Administration's inability to execute and implement education policy has made it a liability for school improvement efforts rather than an asset to it.

 

In 2001, it looked like a safe bet that education accomplishments would be, if not a wind at the president's back, certainly not a headwind. Following the passage of No Child Left Behind, he was deservedly basking in praise for forging bipartisan compromise on important education legislation and seemed poised to genuinely move the education debate forward. In fact, many Democrats were privately saying that while there would be plenty of disagreements and reasons to vote against George Bush in 2004, education likely wouldn't be one of them.

 

Things sure did turn out differently, though. This history is relevant because, despite whatever proposals the president puts forward, an incumbent should be judged on his record. That's why it is important to reexamine how President Bush squandered the remarkable opportunity he was handed. The stars do not line up in Washington very often the way they lined up on education in 2001.

 

Here is what President Bush deserves credit for: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) would not have passed without him, and despite its problems it's an important step forward. It took a Republican president to overcome conservative resistance to programmatic or regulatory expansion of the federal role in education. In fact, many of the equity ideas in NCLB had been championed for some time by a variety of Democrats but had gone nowhere.

 

But now that the NCLB framework is in place, improving education for disadvantaged youngsters requires sustained and intensive attention to making it work. Instead, the Bush Administration's attention to education policy making has been episodic and inconsistent. For starters, three key blunders have done more to undermine NCLB than anything its opponents could have done. By overregulating and turning a deaf ear to even reasonable calls for change, the Administration gave invaluable assistance to those seeking to paint the law as "one size fits all." All large-scale federal policies require changes and tweaks, so expeditiously modifying NCLB provisions would not have reflected poorly on the president. Now, to their credit, Bush officials are addressing some of these problems (while still ignoring others), but the political damage is already done.

 

Similarly, the Administration failed to issue quick guidance about key parts of NCLB and help states and school districts understand its more complicated provisions. The misunderstandings resulting from these delays created implementation problems and still more softballs for NCLB opponents. There are longer-term consequences, too. Many states, for example, are not using all the flexibility NCLB allows in the design of accountability systems, leading in some cases to problems over-identifying schools "needing improvement."

 

Finally, Bush's failure to fund the law sufficiently created political and substantive problems. The political liability is obvious; the president's anemic funding requests call into question his commitment to making the law work and shattered the NCLB coalition. Though Republicans claim dramatic education funding increases since Bush took office, they neglect to add that, had the president's budget requests been passed as submitted, federal funding for NCLB would be almost $7 billion less than it is now. There are legitimate academic arguments about whether, technically, NCLB is adequately funded, and estimates of NCLB costs in some states are politically driven and wildly inflated. But the reality is that, on the ground, those implementing reform policy need the leverage of new resources to drive change.

 

To be sure, NCLB has some insatiable critics. They do not want "fixes" or "improvements," but to see the law gutted. Their resistance was not unexpected, but, remarkably, the Administration failed to plan for it and quickly launch an effort to educate the public and the media about the new policies. Likewise, the Bush Administration's rigid posture, polarizing rhetoric, and inflexibility alienated even many former allies. Even today they are back on their heels because of these problems.

 

The irony, as I see it, is that by all accounts this president does genuinely care a great deal about education. Yet, as he frequently points out when talking about education, results matter, too. It's hard to know what goes on in an administration if you're not part of it, but for whatever reason, the president's concern about the issue has not translated into successful policy implementation.

 

Moreover, sadly, the inability to execute is not limited to NCLB. As a supporter of public charter schools, I sure didn't relish getting cold-cocked by the American Federation of Teachers and the New York Times because the Department of Education didn't have its act together. (See No August Break in Charter Land for more.) Likewise, the evidence is clear that teacher quality reforms along the lines of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) are vitally important; yet again the Administration has not delivered and ABCTE adoption continues at a glacial pace.

 

Now I know many Republicans say that John Kerry is just a tool of the teachers' unions and that education reform will stagnate if he wins. They said the exact same things about Bill Clinton. Yet Clinton's first term saw a landmark reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act that laid the groundwork for many of the provisions of NCLB, a federal jump-starting of the push for standards, and the passage of national charter school legislation, which is widely credited with helping spread charter schooling to more states and communities.

 

There is no reason to believe a Kerry Administration would not be at least equally productive on education. Already John Kerry has proposed innovative ideas to improve teacher preparation and help states and communities attract and retain good teachers by breaking away from the archaic single-salary schedule that governs most teacher pay arrangements. He also has a plan to address the ongoing problems with accountability for graduation rates, and his national service for tuition deal is a long-overdue bargain for America's youth. These ideas are politically brave and significant. Besides, before anyone writes Kerry off on education they should read his 1998 speech from Northeastern University (for an adapted version of this speech, click here), one of the most interesting education speeches given in the last decade.

 

The glaring inequities in America's educational system mean we cannot afford a president who treats education as a fig leaf to put before moderate voters or merely has a noble vision. We need a president who can get the job of education reform done. So, instead of being an asset for the President, education is now one more reason why, for most Democrats, November just can't get here fast enough.

 

Andrew J. Rotherham is director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute and editor of Eduwonk.com. He served at the White House as special assistant to the president for domestic policy in 1999-2000.

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