President Bush’s much-heralded education reform plan, his first domestic policy accomplishment and one of his most important, is in danger of becoming as much a liability as an asset in his reelection campaign, observers from both political parties say.
The 2002 law, known as the No Child Left Behind Act, has come under fire from school officials around the country as they labor to comply with its tough requirements and find the federal government is providing less money than the law promised.
“This is a big, big problem,” said one House Republican, who spoke privately about being inundated with complaints from educators in his district. “The goals and requirements are just not attainable. It is going to hurt the president politically among school people, people who are elected to school boards, community leaders.”
The law is the cornerstone of one of Bush’s signal political accomplishments: He has helped Republicans win increased public confidence in their handling of education, an issue Democrats have traditionally dominated. In January 2002 -- around the time Bush signed the law -- a Washington Post poll found that 71% of those surveyed approved of Bush’s handling of education.
But now the law has become so controversial among educators, state and local officials and others that even a Republican-controlled state legislature last week passed a resolution denouncing it. And, with Democratic presidential candidates relentlessly attacking Bush’s education record, a Post poll last month found that Bush’s approval rating on the issue had dropped to 47%, the first time it had fallen below 50%.
Bush aides say that represents no political peril because other polls show that the education law remains popular among the people it is designed to help -- parents with children in troubled schools -- even if it has riled the education establishment.
The education improvement law has become a hot political issue even though it passed Congress with strong bipartisan support. It requires states to test every student in reading and math each year from third through eighth grade, and it requires schools to make progress each year in increasing the share of students who show proficiency on the tests. Schools that fail to make adequate progress for two years must let students transfer to better schools or offer after-school tutoring.
“President Bush’s leadership on improving education is something we will proudly talk about throughout this campaign,” said Scott Stanzel, deputy press secretary for Bush’s reelection campaign.
Still, Bush is moving to recapture the initiative on the issue. He has announced that he would request an increase in education funding in his election-year budget. He spotlighted a proposed education and job training initiative last week. And he devoted a sizable chunk of his State of the Union address to defending the No Child Left Behind Act.
“The status quo always has its defenders,” Bush said. “Yet the results we require are really a matter of common sense: We expect third-graders to read and do math at third-grade level -- and that is not asking too much.”
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, are planning an aggressive effort to regain the upper hand on education. At a policy-planning conference of House Republicans this week, Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, will exhort the rank and file to talk to constituents about what Bush and the Republicans have done to improve education.
“It is essential that we get Americans to understand the success of No Child Left Behind,” Pryce said.
The law will be in the spotlight just as the 2004 election campaigning peaks. Next fall, states will release their annual lists of schools that are failing to meet federal standards, as measured by mandated testing.
“It was a great story in Year 1, but it’s going to be an increasingly bad story,” said Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster. “All these tests are going to do is produce a lot of evidence that a lot of schools are failing.”
Many school officials criticize the law as a heavy-handed intrusion by Washington requiring them to spend money they don’t have in tough budget times. One-third of public educators who responded to a recent survey said the law would not work without substantial changes.
Dorothy Ham, principal of Webber Elementary School in Eastover, S.C., said her school had been rated as “failing” despite great progress in the performance of its students, almost 95% of whom come from families below the poverty line.
“It’s arbitrary and not fair,” Ham said. To be dubbed “failing” by the government is a “slap in the face.”
“They are asking a lot of us, but they aren’t giving us the equipment we need,” said Carole J. White, a teacher at Wildwood Elementary School in Baton Rouge, La.
Democrats in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail say Bush and Republican leaders have undercut the No Child Left Behind Law by providing less federal aid than the law has authorized. For example, the law authorized $32 billion for 2004, but Bush requested only $22.6 billion and Congress provided $24.5 billion.
Democrats are not the only critics. Republican state legislators have gone to the White House with complaints that the law amounts to a federal education standard without federal funds to help schools meet it.
Last week, the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates denounced the law, voting 98-1 for a nonbinding resolution calling for their state to be exempt from the legislation. It was just the latest in a series of protests from state legislatures, some of which were considering forgoing federal money to escape the requirements of the education law.
Republican proponents of the law see in the criticism the squawking of an education establishment that helped create the problems the legislation is trying to fix. They say Democratic presidential candidates are jumping on the bandwagon because educators make up an important constituency.
“The dominance of teachers unions in the Democratic primary is why you see candidates saying all they are,” said Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a chief author of the bill.
Boehner and others dismiss complaints about insufficient funds, saying education spending has increased more in the three years of the Bush presidency than in the eight years under President Clinton. But Boehner acknowledges that he and other Republicans -- as well as the White House -- need to do a better job of explaining the law and encouraging educators to embrace its ambitious goals.
“This is hard, there’s no question about it,” Boehner said. “I’ve spent countless hours with House members, teachers, parents, school board members, explaining what the federal law is and isn’t.”
A recent survey by David Winston, a Republican pollster, found that 52% of voters approved of the education reform law. After people were told more about the law, the approval rating rose to 68%.
But Winston also found that the public’s confidence in Republicans’ ability to handle education issues has waned over the last two years. When the law was signed, voters split evenly when asked which party they trusted more to handle education -- a remarkable surge by the Republicans from May 1999, when 50% of respondents voiced a preference for Democrats, compared with 29% who chose Republicans.
Now Winston finds that 48% favor Democrats again, compared with 37% for Republicans. But he does not believe that fallout from the education reform law is responsible.
“Bush has been focused on the economy and the war, so he hasn’t had the opportunity to talk about education,” he said. That is why House GOP leaders are looking for ways to make education a bigger part of their agenda in this election year.
“When Republicans talk about our education achievements and agenda, the education issue becomes a ‘jump ball’ between Democrats and Republicans,” said a memo to Pryce and Boehner. “When we don’t talk about these things, the issue defaults to the Democrats.”
Regaining ground on education is important to Bush and other Republicans, Pryce said, because it is a top issue for swing voters. For Bush, it is a key part of his effort to redefine the party around the idea of “compassionate conservatism.”
If Bush can consolidate his hold on voters who care about education, he will have carried his party a long way from where it was a decade ago, when its agenda centered on abolishing the Education Department and bashing teachers unions.
“Republicans were dumb in the past when it came to education,” Pryce said. “Every parent wants to love their kid’s teacher. They don’t like to hear politicians badmouthing teachers.”