A Dollar Short

The Web site of Democratic Congressman George Miller of California features a touching photo of the signing of the education reform bill at an Ohio school on January 8. Flanked by beaming African-American children, Miller, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Republican Congressman John Boehner of Ohio -- three of the bill's four authors -- stand with Education Secretary Rod Paige in a happy barbershop quartet of bipartisan unity. George W. Bush, the self-proclaimed "education president," is also beaming, pen in hand, as he prepares to sign the historic No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Just five weeks later, however, Bush wiped the smiles off those faces (at least the Democratic ones) by submitting his 2003 budget proposal, which came in $90 million shy of the commitments the education-reform act set forth. His Democratic partners on the legislation have rallied furiously in response. With a congressional battle to restore the funding still to come, Kennedy asked a room packed with education reporters, "Will the president fulfill his promise to the nation to truly leave no child behind?" Miller has attacked the president's proposal as the "No Money Left Behind for Education Budget."

When the education-bill team gathered in the White House for its initial negotiations, says Miller, both he and Kennedy emphasized that substantial reforms were only possible with an increase in funding to schools. "You couldn't do it on the cheap," Miller explains. "And President Bush said the money was going to be there." In order to win the Democrats' backing, Bush also scaled down his support for vouchers. But like so many of the bill's provisions, this compromise was undercut by the president's proposed budget, which diverts $4 billion to private-school tuitions, in the form of tax cuts for parents who remove children from failing public schools.

At the same time, the new budget increases total education funding by just $1.4 billion, the smallest boost in seven years. During that time the yearly increase in education spending has averaged 13 percent; Bush's budget calls for a 2.8 percent hike. "He signed [the bill,]" says Miller, "and he's not living up to it."

Kennedy and Miller aren't the only ones who expected the Bush administration to show a greater commitment to education. After all, Bush rode into the presidency on his education-reform platform. It was the linchpin of his successful effort to package himself as a "compassionate conservative" and to gain the support of white, moderate suburbanites. He repeatedly touted the state- and federal-testing standards that he had developed in Texas as the best way to defeat what he called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." The new education law reflects these ideas: It requires states to begin testing third- to eighth-graders in math and reading proficiency in 2005. Schools will also be required to administer a standardized national test; institutions that do poorly may be taken over by the school district or the state. Without additional funding, however, schools will find it difficult to live up to the law's heightened standards.

Teachers, too, will have a hard time clearing the high bar the No Child Left Behind Act attempted to set. Recognizing that the quality of instruction has a significant impact on student achievement, the legislation requires schools to employ a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom by 2005. But the budget freezes the teacher-quality program. In fact, as a result of the shortfall, 18,000 fewer teachers will receive training next year, Kennedy's office reports.

In all, Bush's budget axes 40 education programs to the tune of more than $1 billion; 26 of those programs are part of the No Child Left Behind Act. After-school programs and bilingual education are slated to receive the same funding next year as they did this year -- which amounts to a cut, due to the projected increase in enrollment. As a result, 33,000 children will go without after-school programs in 2003, and 25,000 will be deprived of bilingual education.

To counter critics, Bush supporters point to the budget's $1 billion increases in funding to Title 1, the federal program for disadvantaged children, and to special-education state grants. But because rates of poverty are also projected to rise, Bush's increase will still leave 250,000 minority or economically disadvantaged children without access to Title 1 resources. And at the rate that the budget proposes to finance the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, it will take 15 years to deliver adequate funding to special education. Bush's new tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, meanwhile, amount to $110 billion over 10 years -- or 50 times the total he's proposing for new education spending.

The Democrats are fighting back. Miller believes there is still hope for restoring funding to the education bill, and Kennedy plans to introduce a new bill dedicating more funds to needs-based scholarships, special education, and early-childhood education. If Democrats can frame the issue as a choice between improving schools or letting them deteriorate, moderate Republicans -- from districts that voted for George "No Child Left Behind" Bush -- just might feel compelled to live up to the president's campaign commitments.

You may also like