The Good, the Bad and the Missing: President Bush's Proposals for Improving Education for Disadvantaged Students

Introduction

As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush campaigned as a “reformer with results” on education, and he based his recommendations for improving education on his record as governor of Texas. Now, as President, he has made his education proposals one of his administration’s top legislative priorities. A key goal of his proposals, for which he has received bipartisan praise, is to use federal education policy to help close the “achievement gap” between advantaged and disadvantaged students. His proposals are outlined in a document entitled “No Child Left Behind,” released January 23, 2001.1

While the January 23 document introduces the President’s proposals relating to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as well as other legislation affecting education, it is not so much a concrete, fully developed plan as a descriptive outline of a plan. In fact, it lacks even much of the detail of the proposals announced by candidate Bush during the campaign. In particular, it lacks any language on how the various programs and provisions would work. It contains no information regarding proposed funding levels and how funds would be distributed. In fact, it omits even the dollar figures that were included in his campaign proposals. The only additional specifics provided by the president prior to February 26 have been an overall requested budget increase of 11% for the Department of Education (including approximately 8% for elementary and secondary education) and the repetition of his campaign proposal to spend $5 billion on reading programs over five years.2

Nevertheless, between this current policy framework and statements and his campaign literature, it is possible to review and evaluate the President’s proposals concerning what he has described as perhaps their most crucial aspect: their impact on disadvantaged students. Bush’s proposals can be compared to another recent bipartisan effort to substantially improve education for poor students: the reauthorization of Title I of the ESEA passed by the House of Representatives in 1999 (hereafter referred to as the “House-passed Title I” bill (HPTI). Title I targets education for disadvantaged students, and the reauthorization crafted by House Republicans and Democrats built on Title I reforms in 1994 and before.

Although many of the President’s proposals would have some effect on disadvantaged students, this report focuses on his Title I and related proposals. These include: 1) his reliance on testing and standards to improve education for poor children;
2) the use of vouchers and similar methods for diverting students and funds from public schools to private; 3) his proposals on early reading and pre-school programs; 4) his suggestions for boosting teacher quality; and 5) the overall federal role in improving education for the poor, especially with respect to resources.

Our conclusions about the President’s proposals fall into three categories: the good, the bad, and the missing. We find important features to be commended in the President’s plan (the good). We also find a number of important aspects of the plan that are of grave concern (the bad). Given the sketchiness of the President’s plan, there is much of significance that is simply “missing.” The “missing” includes not only questions left unanswered by the very vagueness of the plan, but also items or priorities omitted from the plan that should be included if the plan is to reach its laudable stated goal of leaving no child behind. These and related issues should be carefully considered by the Administration and Congress as they continue to work on transforming the President’s plans into specific education legislation.

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