For a dubiously-elected President who comes into office with historically low levels of support among African Americans and who has a well-deserved anti-poor, pro-business image, education is an "outreach" issue. It's one of the few areas that allows Bush to posture, however disingenuously, as an ally of poor communities of color, particularly those that have been badly served by public education.
During his campaign, Bush railed against the "soft bigotry of low expectations" to promote a school reform strategy based on punitive high stakes testing. Now in office, he has appropriated the slogan of the Children's Defense Fund, "Leave No Child Behind" as the motto of a 28-page position paper on remaking the federal role in education. By focusing on the lowest performing schools and the racial dimensions of the achievement gap, Bush gives his education rhetoric an edge and an urgency it would otherwise lack. However, he uses this rhetoric to frame policy proposals for vouchers and high stakes tests that would actually reinforce the "hard bigotry" of institutional racism in education, for example, by promoting more tracking, higher dropout rates, and persistent funding inequities.
In fact, combining rhetorical concern for the victims of inequality with policies that perpetuate it may be an operative definition of Bush's "compassionate conservatism."
Although the President's policy paper left out key details — like budget figures — it staked out positions that will shape debate over the federal education agenda. They include:
- A call for annual, federally-mandated testing in 3rd through 8th grades in reading and math. This call to leave no child untested could dramatically impact states and school districts already sagging under expanded testing mandates.
- The restructuring of dozens of federal programs, many targeted to specific needs like class-size reduction and after-school programs, into general categories of block aid that states can use with more flexibility, and less concern for equity, to "improve student achievement" (i.e., raise test scores).
- An overhaul of Title I, the largest federal education program, that would allow the introduction of a voucher system to encourage students to "seek other options," including private or religious schools.
- An expanded early childhood reading initiative that would fund a limited range of phonics-based approaches to reading instruction.
- Increased funds and support for charter schools.
- Reduced support for bilingual education, and a requirement that non-English speaking students receive instruction entirely in English within three years of entering the school system.
With the exception of the voucher proposal, Bush's plan generally drew high praise from congressional Democrats. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) gushed about "overwhelming areas of agreement." Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who released his own "Three Rs" education package, said there was maybe "80 percent agreement" with Bush. Even Major Owens, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus from New York and a supporter of the Miller-Kildee House bill (HR 340) that is a liberal alternative to the Bush plan (see below), said he thought there was maybe "75 percent agreement." Given the partisan polarization that kept the last Congress from reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for the first time since the mid-1960s, this reaction suggests the likelihood of an early compromise despite significant differences on details.