Under Bill Clinton, Democrats offered schools a new deal: more money for more accountability. Clinton increased federal spending on almost every form of educational initiative. But he also passed legislation requiring schools to demonstrate progress in improving student performance or face steadily escalating consequences. It was the schoolhouse equivalent of Clinton's approach to welfare reform: opportunity linked to responsibility.
This year, though, several of the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates are retreating toward a more questionable model: more money and less accountability.
For months, every Democratic contender has urged more federal spending on education. Now, some of the top contenders are pushing to loosen the testing and accountability provisions at the heart of the education reform bill President Bush steered through Congress in 2001.
"We have to get rid of this one-size-fits-all testing mania that is destroying the ability of people to apply discretion," says Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry.
"It is fraudulent education policy," says former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
These attacks come less than two years after Congress overwhelmingly approved Bush's education reform package -- the No Child Left Behind Act -- with just six Democrats voting against it in both the House and Senate.
The bill drew support from so many Democrats, including Kerry, largely because it extended the Clinton model of offering schools more help but stiffening the demands on them to show results.
The bill President Clinton signed in 1994 required districts to test students at least once at each school level -- elementary, intermediate and high school -- and demonstrate improvement over time. But experience demonstrated that tests spaced so widely apart didn't capture trends in student performance precisely enough.
So the legislation Bush signed required states to test (with the states' own tests) every student in reading and math each year from third through eighth grade. No Child Left Behind requires schools to make progress each year at increasing the share of students from all backgrounds -- not just middle-class white students but also minority and low-income students -- who demonstrate proficiency in reading and math on the tests.
Schools that fail to show "adequate yearly progress" for two consecutive years must give students the opportunity to transfer to other public schools; schools that miss the mark for three consecutive years must offer students after-school tutoring. Eventually, persistently failing schools must be restructured with a new principal and teachers.
Always skeptical of these provisions, the educational establishment is now in full revolt against the bill. This month, the National Education Assn., the big teachers' union, ran full-page ads in newspapers denouncing the bill's testing requirement as "a rigid, one-size-fits-all framework that relies solely on test scores to measure children and public schools." Perhaps it goes without saying the NEA bought these ads, whose language Kerry conspicuously echoed in his own criticism of the bill, in newspapers across Iowa and New Hampshire, the site of the first two Democratic contests in January.
What's made the teachers and educators so upset? Possibly evidence that many schools are falling short of the new requirements. Surveying 39 states with 17,000 public schools this fall, the National Journal magazine found that one-fourth of those schools had failed to meet the bill's standards for improving student performance.
Like a teacher who rewrites a test after too many students fail, Kerry's and Dean's response is to loosen the standard. Kerry's aides say he believes schools that fail to meet the requirements for improving student performance in reading and math should still be able to avoid a failing label if they show progress in other ways, such as improving attendance or offering more after-school programs. Dean agrees and would reverse course even more fundamentally by repealing the requirement that schools test students annually.
These attacks on the 2001 reform act almost always draw applause from Democratic audiences -- not to mention groups representing teachers and other adults in the education business. But last week, an unlikely group of critics denounced attacks on the accountability standards as nothing more than shooting the messenger.
In a statement issued by The Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for low-income children, 100 African American and Latino school superintendents said the threat that schools will be labeled as failing under the act is forcing administrators to focus more attention on helping the neediest kids and the most troubled schools.
"Accountability ... helps to create a sense of urgency, a sense that we need to act and do better," said Diana Lam, deputy chancellor for teaching and learning in New York City, one of those who signed the letter. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, another Democratic hopeful, also defends the new requirements, going against Dean and Kerry, insisting: "The solution is not to tear down the high standards we set."
The 2001 act isn't perfect. In many cities, the provisions allowing parents to transfer their children out of poorly performing schools may not be meaningful unless students have the right to switch to better suburban schools. States must find better ways to involve more parents; teachers can't lift kids alone. And schools always need more money (especially to repair crumbling buildings).
But diluting the accountability provisions would send exactly "the wrong message" (as the minority superintendents put it) to communities that have long tolerated substandard educations for low-income and minority kids.
Kerry and Dean see the squeals of protest from educators over No Child Left Behind as proof the law is failing. But that may be the best evidence it's succeeding.
Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' Web site at www.latimes.com/brownstein.