Education Reform in the Second Term

, Larry Scholer, Leave a comment

After the 2004 election the President remarked that he had earned political capital, and on Monday it became clear that he intended to spend some of it on advancing the education reforms of his first term.

President Bush will seek to extend the coverage of the No Child Left Behind Act and pursue other reforms intended to make quality education more accessible, according to a bipartisan panel that convened on December 6 at the American Enterprise Institute. Three of the panelists—David Dunn, Nina Rees [pictured], and Sally Stroup—serve in the Bush administration; one, Roberto Rodriguez, is a senior education advisor to Sen. Edward Kennedy; and the other, Erik Robelen, is the Washington reporter for Education Week.

While the debate over No Child Left Behind has quieted, Democrats will not remain silent for long. Democrats want to see “consistent attention” paid to the requirement for highly qualified teachers in core subjects, a demand that could prove problematic for the administration. At the end of 2005-2006, the act requires that core classes be taught by teachers whom a state considers “highly qualified.” Currently, 14 states report how many classes are taught by highly qualified individuals, and most states “lack reliable data on teacher quality,” according to the December 8 edition of Education Week.

The resignation of Rod Paige, and his replacement by Margaret Spellings, does not suggest any shift in the attitude or policy at the Department of Education. “Reform energy will continue,” said Dunn, special assistant to the President for domestic policy. This reform energy will focus on three major areas: the No Child Left Behind Act, school choice, and higher education.

While the No Child Left Behind Act did face some criticism in the months leading up to the 2004 Democratic primary, such appraisals have faded. The No Child Left Behind Act is here to stay, agreed the panelists. “The administration plans to stick to its guns on the No Child Left Behind Act,” Dunn said. The administration also hoped to use that momentum to extend the coverage of the act into high schools. “The President is encouraged by the results [of earlier reforms] and wants to push reforms more deeply into high schools,” said Dunn, noting that the President will request money from Congress for this purpose. The administration also hopes to expand coverage of the act into early childhood programs, a move that could attract Democrats. Head Start, Rodriguez noted, is a priority for the President, and Democrats would welcome the opportunity to work with the President on Head Start expansion.

School choice enjoyed moderate success in the President’s first term although the number of students who have participated in school choice programs has been small. In 2002-03, 45,000 students participated in public school choice. Although the numbers are not overwhelming, “the administration has done more than any other administration for school choice,” said Rees, who later added that the “job in the next four years is to focus on solidifying these outcomes.” Improvements in participation will be made by pushing choice initiatives at the state-level through grants and community outreach. On the federal-level, the task remains to provide a “bully pulpit” for choice and to tout achievement of school choice programs.

In higher education, reforms will target students from low-income backgrounds in order to make higher education more accessible. There is a need for comprehensive simplification of federal financial aid forms. Many low-income students do not file for federal financial aid because they find the forms intimidating, according to Stroup, assistant secretary for postsecondary education. The Department of Education also sees the necessity of providing better information to students. “Good data in the hands of parents and students is worthwhile for the federal government,” Stroup said. Stroup asserted the need for income quartile cost-of-education data. Such data would analyze the cost of education at a college or university in terms of ranges of income. That is, the data would show four different costs for four different ranges of income. Such data, according to Stroup, would make tuitions at elite schools seem less prohibitive to low-income families.

Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.