The Education Agenda

Every four years, on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, millions of voters across the nation head to their neighborhood schools to choose who will be president of the United States. But, other than a fleeting role as a host to voting machines and election judges, the nation's schools historically have not had much of a direct connection to presidential elections.

The federal government's role in educating the nation's children, especially at the elementary and secondary level, traditionally has been limited. State and local funding provide the overwhelming majority of school operating and capital budgets, and local school boards and state legislatures typically have set the standards that determine what kind of education a child receives.

As community leaders and education advocates raised their voices to express concern over the quality of education in U.S. schools, lawmakers began to embrace more readily the notion that education was a national issue that deserved more federal attention. In general, Democrats have been viewed as stronger proponents of a greater federal role, at least financially, in the nation's schools, but it has been under the Republican administration of George W. Bush that the federal government has assumed its most active involvement in schools.

But despite the growing prominence of the federal government in school matters, the 2004 presidential campaign has not generated much attention for the debate over education in the United States. The candidates periodically issue position papers or make speeches about their education platforms, but other issues have taken center stage — the war in Iraq, strengthening the economy, as well as discussions of National Guard records and Vietnam battle histories.

Voters may ultimately base their choices on other issues, but clear differences on education exist between the two major candidates — President Bush and U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Both Bush and Kerry want the federal government to use its resources to bring about better schools and more educated students. But the candidates have different paths toward those goals.

Bush points to the passage of his education reform package, the No Child Left Behind Act, as his most notable achievement in improving schools, while his critics use the same legislation as evidence that the current administration is not doing enough to support education. (See sidebar, p. 24)

“Because we acted, children are making sustained progress in reading and math, America's schools are getting better, and nothing will hold us back,” says Bush. “We are transforming our schools by raising standards and focusing on results. We are insisting on accountability, empowering parents and teachers, and making sure that local people are in charge of their schools. By testing every child, we are identifying those who need help, and we're providing a record level of funding to get them that help.”

Kerry, who along with his running mate, U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), voted in the Senate in support of the No Child Left Behind Act, says the Bush administration has not provided enough money to allow the No Child Left Behind reforms to work.

“Two months after the law was signed, this administration tried to break their promise by shortchanging the law by $27 billion,” says Kerry. “Millions of children have been left behind — left with overcrowded classrooms, left without textbooks, and left without the high-quality tests that measure what they are learning. … It's time to make these reforms work. And it's time to fully fund No Child Left Behind.”

Republican proposals

Looking beyond No Child Left Behind, the Bush campaign has proposed several education initiatives meant to build on the reform efforts in his first term.

“In our high schools, we will fund early-intervention programs to help students at risk,” says Bush. “We will place a new focus on math and science. As we make progress, we will require a rigorous exam before graduation.”

Here are education proposals Bush hopes to achieve in a second term:

  • Expand efforts to strengthen early-childhood education

    The plan would give priority consideration for federal funding to programs that have a coordinated early-childhood education program involving Head Start, pre-K and childcare services, and would expand the Reach Out and Read program, which seeks to make early literacy a standard part of pediatric primary care.

  • Ensure that every high school student graduates with necessary skills

    This proposal would establish a $200 million fund that would help schools use eighth-grade test data to develop performance plans for entering high school students. Bush also proposes requiring state assessments in grades 3 to 11, offering financial incentives to teachers who help students improve their performance, and creating an “e-Learning Clearinghouse” of online learning opportunities for students and adults.

  • Make higher education more user-friendly and more oriented to the needs of today's students — especially adult students

    Bush proposes a Community College Access Grants Fund that would provide an incentive for community colleges to offer dual-enrollment programs, which allow high school students to earn college credit. The proposal also would encourage states to make it easier to transfer community college credits to four-year institutions.

  • Create more opportunities for lifelong learning

    Bush has proposed making loans available to help workers pay for short-term training that leads to an industry-recognized credential or certificate. The administration estimates that about 650,000 adults that need short-term training are not receiving it. The plan also calls for more flexibility for federal student-aid programs: expanding the availability of competency-based programs as an alternative to traditional credit-hour programs.

  • Allow students who want to accelerate their studies to receive year-round Pell grants

    Currently, students are allowed to receive only one Pell grant in a single award year, which discourages them from enrolling in school throughout an entire year so they can graduate in three years instead of four.

Among the initiatives Bush has proposed in his first term are the Striving Readers Initiative, which would make $100 million in grants available to develop reading intervention programs for middle and high school students reading significantly below grade level; a $120 million increase in the Mathematics and Science Partnership program, which would provide grants for programs designed to increase achievement in math among low-achieving secondary students; and a modernization of the Perkins Vocational Education program so that it better reflects the needs of workers in the 21st century.

Democratic agenda

As the challenger in the presidential race, Kerry has put forth numerous proposals for improving the nation's education system.

“My first priority will be to meet our financial responsibilities to our schools,” says Kerry. “ … We also need to do something about the infrastructure of our schools. Thousands of schools across America are crumbling today. What does that say about valuing our kids' future? When I am president, we will build and rebuild, modernize and repair, our school buildings with new school modernization bonds.”

The key elements of Kerry's education platform:

  • Create an Education Trust Fund

    Such a fund “will ensure that new education programs authorized by Congress will be funded on a mandatory basis,” the Kerry campaign says. That will enable the federal government to fully fund the No Child Left Behind reforms, and increase funding that goes to states and local district for students with disabilities.

  • Provide more support for schools needing improvement

    The “Great Strides Fund” would make additional funds available to turn around struggling schools. The funds could be used to pay for intervention teams of teachers and principals that would help solve problems at a struggling school, or to pay bonuses to top teachers to work in struggling schools.

  • Recruit and retain high-quality teachers

    The “New Bargain for America's Teachers and Children” will recruit or retain 500,000 teachers over four years. Teachers will be offered pay hikes of $5,000 to work in high-need areas or in subjects with a shortage of teachers. They also will be offered better training, mentoring and career-development opportunities. The plan will impose rigorous tests for new teachers, pay systems that reward teachers who excel at improving student achievement, and procedures to make it less difficult to remove a poorly performing teacher.

  • Improve anti-dropout programs

    A Kerry administration would set a goal of helping an additional 1 million students graduate in the next five years through efforts such as mentoring programs in middle schools; breaking up large, struggling high schools into more manageable sizes; and strengthening high-school curricula.

  • Expand after-school programs

    Kerry wants to establish a “School's Open 'Til 6” initiative that would serve up to 3.5 million children a year. The programs would be open until at least 6 p.m., and would offer bus transportation so that children could get home safely; they would be education-oriented and linked to the curriculum taught during the school day; and they would include programs that have shown success in helping children avoid drugs, crime and other trouble.

  • Establish a tax credit on college tuition to make college more affordable

    Kerry's proposal would provide a tax credit of up to $4,000 a year for four years of college.

  • Help construct and modernize school facilities

    Kerry supports a proposal that would allow the federal government to issue $24.8 billion in school modernization bonds to help states and local districts repair and build school facilities. The program also would allocate funds for charter-school facilities.

  • Expand national service by having young people help educate students in struggling schools

    Kerry's plan calls for young people giving two years of national service in return for four years of tuition at a public university. Some 75,000 of the 200,000 people serving full-time in these programs would work as teachers, aides, tutors or mentors in struggling schools. In addition, 300,000 college students would receive up to $2,000 a year to help pay for college by becoming part-time participants in national service. They would help prepare at-risk preschoolers for school, tutor young children in reading and mentor at-risk teens to prepare them for college.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

NCLB: Making a difference or falling short?

Signed into law in January 2002 by President George W. Bush with bipartisan support, including supporting votes from Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was described as the most comprehensive change in federal education policy in nearly 40 years.

Its widely embraced goals included closing the achievement gap between students of different socio-economic backgrounds, making all students proficient in reading and mathematics.

“It's hard to imagine that there are many Americans who do not share its aspirations — to provide better, more demanding education to all students and to have all groups of students in every school move steadily toward a high level of achievement,” says a report by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

In pursuit of those goals, the law involves the federal government in education more than ever before — not just through greater funding, but in requiring standards and guidelines, and in imposing consequences for failing to meet standards.

Whether the increased involvement has been a good thing or not has become the center of the education debate in the 2004 election.

“To many, NCLB embodies — and even elevates — America's longstanding commitment to public education and the central role it plays in maintaining the nation's economic competitiveness, the strength of its institutions, the vitality of its communities and the well-being of its citizens,” says the Education Commission of the States. “Others view NCLB as well-intentioned but far beyond the capacity of states, districts and schools to carry out. Still others see the law as a burdensome and unwarranted intrusion on state prerogatives and responsibilities.”

The Bush campaign points to initial signs of success in the form of higher test scores among minority students in some states. Critics that include not only Kerry and Democrats but also many educators responsible for carrying out the reforms, characterize it in much less glowing terms.

Kerry's most frequent criticism of No Child Left Behind is the level of funding. While Bush points out that he has increased federal education funding to unprecedented levels, Kerry counters that the Bush administration has underfunded the reforms by $27 billion.

Educators familiar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its predecessors know that in Washington there is a difference between the amount of spending authorized in federal legislation and the amount actually allocated. States and local school districts have been waiting since 1975 for federal special-education funding to come anywhere near the levels authorized by Congress.

Regarding NCLB, the president's supporters say that it is not necessary to reach the authorized spending levels to carry out the reform legislation effectively.

“We have calibrated the money necessary to implement the law, and we have provided it,” says U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige. “Federal education funding itself is larger now than in any previous administration.”

Advocates for minority students maintain that the reforms require more money.

“The transformation sought by the law was supposed to be lubricated by a huge infusion of new federal funds that would add resources to the schools required to produce large improvements,” says Harvard's Civil Rights Project. “The fact that this has not been fulfilled at the same time that the combination of earlier state tax cuts and a national recession created fiscal cutbacks in almost all states has made a very difficult situation seem impossible to many educators.”

Senate Democrats, led by Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, have introduced a bill called the “No Child Left Behind Improvement Act,” which they contend will maintain the fundamental elements of the reform, but carry out the reforms more effectively with greater funding.

Federal share of education funding is growing
Amount, 2001-02 Percentage, 2001-02 Amount 1997-98 Percentage, 1997-98
Total $419.8 billion 100% $326 billion 100%
Local $179.7 billion 42.8% $146.1 billion 44.8%
State $207.4 billion 49.4% $157.6 billion 48.4%
Federal $32.7 billion 7.8% $22.2 billion 6.8%
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
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