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The Two Faces of No Child Left Behind
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Assessments of the Bush presidency will likely turn on his foreign policy legacy, particularly the war in Iraq and the nation’s economic health. This is due both to their outsized significance and because the administration achieved only a few major legislative victories in programmatic domestic policy. The administration’s signature domestic policy triumph was in education policy, where Bush’s leadership was central to the passage of arguably the most important and controversial piece of education legislation in American history–the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). There, unlike in the 2003 Medicare bill, in which the administration grudgingly sought to shore up a Republican weakness, or the 2008 housing bill, where the administration responded to external forces and congressional pressure, the administration came into office calling for bold and expansive federal policy. In so doing, Bush broke with longstanding GOP opposition to an active federal role in school reform, as both the 1994 Contract with America and the 1996 Republican Party platform called for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education. Bush was in many ways a revolutionary in education policy and the revolution he helped to initiate will long outlive his administration.
Education reform was a linchpin of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and key to administration efforts to reassure suburban voters, woo traditionally Democratic constituencies in the black and Latino communities, and potentially weaken the two dominant teachers unions (the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association), which had long stood as pillars of the Democratic coalition. In Karl Rove’s playbook for building a stable Republican majority, education was intended to demonstrate the ability of Republicans to deliver in an area where Democrats had long enjoyed a giant advantage but were hobbled by interest-group politics. This chapter will assess the political, strategic, and tactical competence of the Bush administration in the area of education policy and offer some reflections on the president’s educational legacy. While the administration tackled a range of educational issues, history will mainly judge the president on the No Child Left Behind Act.
An Inspirational Act or an Incoherent One?
Bush’s approach to the 200I reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)–the primary federal statute addressing K-12 education–sought to inject assessment, accountability, and expanded school choice into federal education programs that had previously distributed billions of dollars in aid annually without any meaningful focus on student achievement or consequences for mediocre school performance. In January 2001, the Bush administration launched its first comprehensive domestic policy proposal when it released a blueprint for ESEA reauthorization (entitled “No Child Left Behind”) that articulated a coherent strategy for reshaping the federal program. The proposal built on reforms championed by the Clinton administration during the 1994 ESEA reauthorization and were thought to have the potential to deliver considerable political benefits for the Republican Party. However, the choices the administration made in crafting and administering the new law proved controversial, and they leave room for two very different interpretations of its tactical competence and the legacy it will leave behind in education.
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI. Patrick J. McGuinn is an associate professor of political science at Drew University.
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