My Democratic friends are probably seeing that headline above my name and must be asking themselves-what is he smoking-and did he inhale? I have never been a fan of George W. Bush, but I must concede that he rightfully is The Education President.
No Child Left Behind helped President Bush accomplish what no other president had done before-to formulate a federal role for quality local public education. It has been an unpopular role in some quarters; it is meddlesome, with school "report cards" based on test results. However, it was unusual for a conservative president to have an education policy directed towards closing achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged, minority and special education students.
Another conservative president might have left the problem to the states and schools, as Ronald Reagan did. The concept of "achievement gaps" is not new; it comes from a report, called A Nation At Risk, which originated from former President Reagan's Department of Education. However, former President Reagan and his top advisors shelved the report. They wanted a diminished, not increased, federal role in K-12 public education; Reagan campaigned on the promise that he would close the Department of Education.
However, President Bush made it possible for Republicans to challenge Democrats to find ways to close the "achievement gaps," probably one reason why No Child Left Behind is his only domestic policy achievement passed with any semblance of bi-partisanship. Governors of both parties had put their own standardized testing practices into place before No Child Left Behind, but according to the non-profit Center for Education Policy, progress in language arts and mathematics has improved since the act passed Congress.
While the Center could not conclude that accelerated progress on standardized tests was the result of No Child Left Behind, testing is not likely to go away. More parents can use the results to question the status quo in their public schools. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The most successful public school systems in our country are the ones with the highest levels of parental and community participation, working in trust with educators.
While I dislike the idea of legislating educational methods-and this administration, unfortunately succeeded on that score-a nation needs ambitious educational goals and objectives. For No Child Left Behind, the most ambitious goal is 100% proficiency in math and language arts by 2014. While this legislation is less than perfect, Democrats do not want to be in a position of saying that this goal is unachievable; that would be conceding failure to some core constituents-political suicide.
Give President Bush credit; he put the Republicans in the stronger position on education, for now.
While conservatives might balk at increased education spending, their kin collected evidence to show, for instance, that our poorest-performing schools require more investments in mathematics and language arts instruction, and maybe science education. I don't think they planned to come to this party, but George W. Bush brought their invitations. I doubt that a Democratic president could have achieved the same success with the same Congress.
The next president's challenge is to forge a bi-partisan education agenda to meet the 100% goal by 2014. Both parties are forced towards commitments for educational excellence; federal money must leverage local efforts towards reading and math proficiency as well as fighting deterrents, such as unsafe schools.
Abandoning the 2014 goal seems foolish for both parties; it goes against the grain of Democrats, who have the visible record of ambitious social policies, and it forces the Republicans to concede failure and go back on their word. It seems sillier for the Republicans to back off on the goal. They're the underdogs so far for 2008; success in making education policy would be a big feather in their caps if they want to keep the White House.
It is also clearer, thanks to No Child Left Behind, that the White House and Congress must place more trust in educators to develop better methods-and not outsource or legislate this responsibility to outside vendors. Education policy and practice cannot be made in a vacuum-and this is President Bush's major failing. No Child Left Behind passed without input from educators who teach in the grades regulated by the act.
The next president, Democrat or Republican, will be in a position to make sound judgments on education policy and succeed in getting bi-partisan support. He or she will have George W. Bush to thank for that.