Before No Child Left Behind, President Clinton had his own plan for education reform. While it is not surprising that many Republicans opposed the Clinton plan, what is striking are the similarities between the Clinton plan and the (often) Republican-backed No Child Left Behind.
In 1999, President Clinton unveiled his education reform strategy in his State of the Union Address. He called on Congress to use federal funding to spur school reforms and "to support what works, and to stop supporting what doesn’t work."
Texas Governor George W. Bush was sharply critical. "The federal government should be a limited partner, not a general partner," he explained. "If they feel like sending money back to the states, fine. But don’t tell us how to run things."
It is funny how times change. Reviewing the Clinton plan, one can’t help but notice similarities to No Child Left Behind, a centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic policy.
President Clinton’s plan called on Congress to attach five "strings" to federal education dollars. First, states would be required end social promotion. Second, states and school districts would be required to reform or close low-performing schools. Third, they must establish teacher qualification requirements. Fourth, parents must be given greater information in the form of district-issued school report cards. Fifth, states and school districts would be required to implement school discipline policies.
Congress didn’t enact President Clinton’s education strategy during his administration, but its spirit lived on.
Consider how core elements of No Child Left Behind resemble President Clinton’s proposal. NCLB was meant to combat "the soft bigotry of low expectations" by ending the practice of automatically passing kids to the next grade. NCLB also defines a "highly-qualified teacher." The law mandates different school reforms for each additional year a school is deemed low-performing, including restructuring or closing schools after five years of failure. Moreover, NCLB requires states to test all students annually and to publish student performance data to provide greater information to parents.
President Bush’s original proposal for No Child Left Behind did include some conservative ideas-like trimming bureaucracy, providing state flexibility, and promoting private school choice-but these provisions didn’t survive congressional negotiations with Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative George Miller (D-CA). What emerged was a law that has increased spending by 41 percent, expanded federal authority and bureaucracy, and created 7 million hours per year worth of new regulations and paperwork for state and local authorities.
The Bush Administration has taken full ownership of No Child Left Behind. Last summer, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said it was "like Ivory soap…99 percent pure." President Bush has made reauthorizing the law a top priority of his remaining tenure.
But Republicans should remember that they-and George W. Bush-once opposed expanding federal power in education-when it was being proposed by President Clinton. Back in the 1990s, conservatives on Capitol Hill fought to limit federal intervention and to return authority to state leaders to create a reform environment that minimized bureaucracy and fostered real improvement.
In the 1990s, Republicans supported the "Academic Achievement for All Act" (commonly called "Straight A’s) which would have allowed states to enter into performance agreements with the federal government that would give them the opportunity to consolidate federal programs and redirect funding toward state initiatives to improve student learning. In exchange, states would establish performance objectives and administer state tests to measure student achievement.
The Straight A’s bill drew the support of 128 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 20 in the Senate. Florida Governor Jeb Bush testified in favor of the bill, asking Congress to "Imagine what our states could do if we could spend more of our time and energy working to improve student achievement, rather than tediously complying with a dizzying array of federal rules." A pilot version of the bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 215 to 213.
President Bush incorporated the Straight A’s approach in his original blueprint for No Child Left Behind. The White House recommended creating a "charter option" to give states and school districts freedom from federal regulations and bureaucracy if they entered into a performance agreement with the Department of Education, but it was whittled down by Congress into a weak funding transfer program.
In 2007, conservatives on Capitol Hill have proposed legislation that follows the original Straight A’s approach and the "charter" option. Senators Jim DeMint (R-DC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) have proposed the A-PLUS Act, which would allow states to opt-out of NCLB and enter into performance agreements with the federal government. Their plan would give states freedom from federal bureaucracy and red tape if they agree to establish academic goals and maintain a consistent, transparent testing system over time to determine whether students are learning. So far, the Bush Administration has been silent on the DeMint-Cornyn plan.
President Bush was right when he said that the federal government should be a "limited partner, not a general partner" in education. The time has come for him and Republicans in Congress to return to their principles on education reform, rather than continuing to champion Bill Clinton’s education strategy.