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At a recent AEI event, President George W. Bush claimed that “the basic principle inherent in No Child Left Behind, the philosophy of it, remained very much intact in the bill–and it’s working.” The compromises struck in passing the law, however, led the Bush administration to champion a dramatically expanded federal role in education, the adoption of an explicitly race-based conception of school accountability, and a focus on “closing achievement gaps” to the exclusion of all other objectives. As a result, it is not a stretch to suggest that Bush permitted himself to become the “hall monitor for the civil rights lobby”–taking the hits from angry suburbanites and the blame for an unpopular law while self-proclaimed civil rights activists got the new and more aggressive federal programs they desired.
Frederick M. Hess
President George W. Bush is famously indifferent about his “legacy,” except when he isn’t. Last week, during a swan song at the American Enterprise Institute, he offered some “reflections by a guy who’s headed out of town.” Particularly noteworthy were his comments about his primary domestic accomplishment, the No Child Left Behind Act, and whether he regretted any of the compromises made when crafting the law.
“The basic principle inherent in No Child Left Behind, the philosophy of it, remained very much intact in the bill–and it’s working,” he said. And though he compromised with Congress, he explained that “the key is to compromise without compromising principle. You can compromise points, but don’t sell out the principle that is inherent in the bill.”
That approach to negotiating sounds straight out of the Harvard Business School playbook, and makes a world of sense. But did Bush live up to that standard? Did he merely compromise on points, or did he compromise his principles as well?
Add it up and it begins to look like Bush compromised on more than just “points.”
Let’s take a short walk down memory lane. Bush’s original proposal for No Child Left Behind, released just days after his inauguration, spelled out his vision for retooling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). A slender 28 pages, the blueprint cribbed generously from the Clinton administration’s plans for reshaping the ESEA, with more testing, greater accountability, and a focus on closing the achievement gap–but it also included substantial efforts to advance conservative-style reforms. The proposal promoted transparency, disciplined accountability, parental choice, greater flexibility for states and school districts, more rigorous standards for educational research, the use of federal funds to encourage state-level experimentation on merit pay and regulatory reform, and a federal role that was “tight” on results and “loose” on micromanagement.
The compromises that the administration struck, however, ultimately led Bush to champion a law that dramatically expanded the federal role in education; adopted an explicitly race-based conception of school accountability; focused on “closing achievement gaps” to the exclusion of all other objectives; proffered a pie-in-the-sky civil rights-oriented approach to school “accountability” (even for students with cognitive disabilities and English language learners); created a burdensome federal mandate around teacher qualifications that hampers outfits such as Teach For America; devised a compliance apparatus that is even more burdensome than the previous regime; and significantly increased federal spending on education. Add it up and it begins to look like he compromised on more than just “points.”
Don’t just trust us; ask the left. Robert Gordon, Democratic educational guru, has incisively explained in the pages of The New Republic, “Progressives are misled by the logic of their own Bush-hatred: Bush is for NCLB, so NCLB must be bad. . . . At its heart, [NCLB] is the sort of law liberals once dreamed about.”
Unfortunately, neither the president nor the current leadership at the Department of Education ever seemed to realize how far they had drifted from the vision they initially espoused, or the degree to which they ultimately found themselves waging a bitter defense of progressive nostrums that originated within reform-minded civil-rights organizations such as the Education Trust and the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights.
Decades ago, Newt Gingrich and other reform-minded conservatives used to savage Bob Dole as a “tax collector for the welfare state”–arguing that “green eyeshade” Republicans were simply enabling Democrats who gleefully maneuvered the budget balancers into backing the tax increases needed to fund expansive programs. Democrats got the credit while Republicans got tagged as grim-faced disciplinarians. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that Bush permitted himself to become the “hall monitor for the civil rights lobby”–taking the hits from angry suburbanites and the blame for an unpopular law, while civil rights groups basked in their new status and doubled down by pushing for new and more aggressive federal programs.
Now a new president is heading into town, and he will bring with him his own education-reform ideas. Some will have merit, some will not. But when Republicans in Congress prepare to compromise with him in order to get legislation passed, let’s hope they follow President Bush’s words, and not his example, and stick to their conservative principles.
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI. Michael J. Petrilli is a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
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