In the fall of 1995, Dr. Reid Lyon, who directs research in the neuroscience of reading and learning disorders in children at the National Institutes of Health, got an unexpected call from first-year Texas governor George W. Bush. “Look,” Bush said, getting right to the point. “I have lots of kids who are not reading well. What’s the science on this that can guide us?” After that chat, Bush flew Lyon down to Texas several times to help redesign the state’s early-childhood reading programs so that they incorporated the latest NIH findings. “We’ve had a great relationship ever since,” Bush recently noted.

Lyon now serves as President Bush’s informal advisor on reading pedagogy, and he helped craft parts of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, the ambitious federal education bill that Bush signed into law in January 2002. Thanks largely to his input, Washington for the first time is using its spending power to prod school districts across the nation to rely on scientific standards in selecting reading programs. “There’s no need to throw good money into programs that don’t work,” Bush explains. “We’ve tried that before.”

For NCLB’s reading initiative alone, Bush richly deserves the title “education president.” But in addition, NCLB, though not perfect, is a powerful instrument of reform in other ways. What’s more, a new Bush-promoted school voucher program for Washington, D.C., may point the way toward further education reform in a second Bush term.

Not that the president’s opponents in the education establishment and the Democratic Party are likely to give him any credit for these accomplishments. With all of today’s harsh criticism of NCLB, it’s easy to forget that it passed Congress by overwhelming bipartisan majorities (87 to 10 in the Senate; 381 to 41 in the House) and that Ted Kennedy stood beaming with the president at the bill-signing ceremony (above). That era of good feelings lasted only a few months—about as long as it took for the public education industry to realize just how serious Bush was about no longer rewarding failure.

The educrats have ample reason to be upset. Before NCLB, the public schools’ failure to educate poor minority kids resulted in ever-increasing streams of federal money to local districts—more than $200 billion over the last four decades, disbursed with no questions asked. Now along comes Bush, requiring state and local districts to prove that the programs that federal dollars pay for have a solid scientific basis and actually work. Once public educators started trashing NCLB, Democrats suddenly decided that they hated it, too. Senator Kennedy now claims that the president “duped” him and that the act’s funding amounted to a “tin cup budget,” despite a big hike in federal education spending under Bush.

In announcing his candidacy, Bush promised that education reform would be his Number One domestic policy priority. His plan, soon named No Child Left Behind, rested on three basic reforms, which states wanting federal education money would have to accept. First came a Lyon-influenced reading initiative. “The findings of years of scientific research on reading are now available, and application of this research to the classroom is now possible for all schools in America,” Bush noted.

Second would be annual testing in basic reading and math skills for all kids in grades three through eight, with the results—broken down by race, sex, English-language proficiency, and socioeconomic status—made public. States would devise their own tests, subject to federal oversight. Mandatory testing had been key to Bush’s education reform success in Texas, where it worked to hold schools accountable.

Third was the creation of an escape hatch for disadvantaged kids stuck in awful schools. If such a student attended a school that failed to make “adequate yearly progress in improving academic outcomes” for three years running, he would be able to use federal funds “to transfer to a higher-performing public or private school”—in other words, he’d get a voucher—or he could “receive supplemental educational services” from an outside provider. The failing school would get some extra financial and technical help the first year, but if it continued to fail, it might have to close, as more and more students transferred out.

A key assumption behind the school choice provision was the idea that competition would make the public schools better. If lousy schools faced the prospect of losing students to other public or private schools, teachers and administrators would try harder to improve things. A profound moral imperative also drove Bush’s reform agenda: it was unacceptable for society to relegate poor black and Hispanic children to perennially failing public schools.

The president began putting the first part of his education reform package into place literally hours after he took the oath of office. The morning after the inauguration, he and Mrs. Bush listened carefully as Reid Lyon and other top education researchers presented their findings at a White House forum on reading pedagogy. The president made it clear that he wanted federal reading policy to go “wherever the evidence leads.”

From his gubernatorial days, Bush already had a good idea that the evidence was leading straight to phonics. Following Lyon’s advice, he had pushed local districts in Texas to adopt phonics-based curricula and saw reading scores in the state shoot up, particularly for minority kids. The number of third-graders—52,000—who failed the reading test at the start of the Bush governorship declined to 36,000 when he left for the White House and has since dropped to 28,000, now that all his reforms are up and running. Since then, the evidence has become irrefutable. After reviewing dozens of studies—some using magnetic resonance imaging to measure differences in brain function between strong and weak readers and among children taught to read by various methods—the National Reading Panel, commissioned by Congress, concluded in 2000 that effective reading programs, especially for kids living in poverty, required phonics-based instruction.

Within a week of taking office, the Bush administration devised a strategy for getting a $6 billion “Reading First” phonics initiative past the relevant House and Senate education committees. The administration was offering school systems a deal that went like this: “The federal government will give you lots more money than ever before for early reading programs. Nothing obligates you to take the money. But if you do take it, the programs you choose must teach children using phonics.” Hardly a single legislator raised doubts about tying federal reading dollars to instructional approaches backed by a consensus of the nation’s scientific experts.

Extending his commitment to science-backed pedagogy even further, Bush asked Lyon to help find top scientists for key Department of Education posts formerly reserved for teachers’ union and public school officials. Lyon recruited Grover Whitehurst, formerly chair of the psychology department and a professor of pediatrics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, to head the department’s Institute of Education Sciences, which has become the administration’s bully pulpit for encouraging science-backed teaching methods in all subject areas.

You’d think that educators would welcome the scientific turn in federal reading policy. After all, the racial gap in school performance that liberals as well as conservatives decry as the greatest obstacle to equal opportunity in America first shows up as a wide gap in reading. While 40 percent of all American kids don’t attain the “basic” reading level by fourth grade, the rate of reading failure for inner-city black and Hispanic children is a catastrophic 70 percent. If we now have hard evidence on what methods will best bring these struggling kids up to speed, why wouldn’t educators support the government’s efforts to promote those methods?

The short answer is ideology and money. The nation’s leading teachers’ colleges and professional teachers’ organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of English, hate phonics. Columbia University’s Teachers College, to take one prominent example, doesn’t have a single class in phonics instruction. In these precincts, “whole language” reading instruction, in which children ostensibly learn to read “naturally” by absorbing word clues from whole texts, is the politically correct pedagogy, even though its claims to success have no scientific backing. The educational establishment views President Bush, Reid Lyon, and all their works as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to regiment America’s children.

There’s also tons of money at stake. If the idea of science-backed reading instruction takes hold in the nation’s school districts, millions of dollars in fees currently paid to the ed schools for whole-language teacher training and curriculum development will vanish.

Small wonder that Teachers College president Arthur Levine recently penned a furious op-ed denouncing NCLB’s Reading First provision, after the Bush administration showed that it meant business and refused $39 million in funding for New York City’s “balanced literacy” reading program (a euphemism for whole language) earlier this year. (The city subsequently switched over to a phonics program in 49 schools with mostly minority student populations in order to get the money.) Levine was flabbergasted that the federal Department of Education was actually enforcing the nation’s new education law. “Reading First removed control from the mayor and placed crucial decisions about education in the hands of President Bush,” Levine complained. Apparently Levine forgot that one major purpose of presidential elections is to give the winner the right to make “crucial decisions” about spending federal tax dollars, and that the city could keep all the control it wanted simply by not accepting the federal money.

So far, complaints from professional educators about Reading First don’t seem to be getting any traction with parents or the public, however. All 50 states have submitted proposals to the Department of Education requesting Reading First grants and vowing that they will use the funds only for science-backed phonics instruction, and they have already received more than $2 billion. Though it’s too early to say that the nation’s schools are “hooked on phonics,” the schools are more aware than ever that scientific evidence, not ideology, should guide decisions about reading instruction.

But NCLB’s other components—testing and accountability—have proven far more vulnerable to the act’s critics, thanks to defects in the drafting of the law that resulted from concessions to congressional Democrats.

The contested 2000 election and an evenly divided Senate left President Bush with a weak hand as he tried to get Congress to adopt his education reform package. To get any education bill at all, he would need some Democratic votes, and for political reasons he and his advisors concluded that they needed not just a few Dems but a big, bipartisan majority behind this signature piece of domestic legislation.

During negotiations, the Bush team concluded that, while science-backed reading and state testing could win big majorities, the private school choice remedy for kids trapped in failing schools—vouchers—was a sure loser. “Democratic opposition was just too strong,” one insider recalls. “No amount of arm-twisting or cajoling could change that political reality.”

The result was a watered-down choice provision. Disadvantaged kids in schools that the state tests showed had failed to make “adequate yearly progress” two years in a row would be able to transfer, but only into non-failing public schools within the same district, or in other districts, if school officials there agreed to accept the students. As in Bush’s original plan, the lousy school could face closure if it didn’t improve.

A second concession changed the definition of a failing school, since liberal Democrats wanted to include not just schools with consistently atrocious test results for all students, but also those in which a small racial or ethnic subgroup was doing poorly, even if most of their classmates were doing fine. “Some of the Democrats on the other side didn’t want to say that it’s okay to have one group falling behind in a school,” recalls the administration’s point man in the negotiations, Sandy Kress, a former chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “In effect, they were telling us that if you really want to say, ‘No Child Left Behind,’ then let’s really leave no child behind.”

Though these changes won Bush his huge majority, they proved costly. Putting lots more schools on the failing list, while letting their students transfer only into non-failing public schools, created massive confusion. After all, in most inner-city districts, all of the public schools were failing; parents had no alternatives whatever. In New York City, for example, more than 300,000 families received notices that their kids were in schools not “making adequate yearly progress” and that they now could apply to send their children to “successful schools.” But since the few “successful” public schools could accommodate only a tiny handful of those desperate kids, parents saw NCLB as a cruel joke, while the press branded it a fiasco. The chaos has prompted 14 states to seek exemptions from the law. Despite these setbacks, Bush education officials see a silver lining in public school choice: some urban school districts are opening new charter schools to accommodate students eligible to transfer.

Meanwhile, progressive education’s militant anti-testing wing had found a brand-new cause. Best-selling writers like Jonathan Kozol and Alfie Kohn have always maintained that “testing kills”—apparently meaning this metaphorically. But now, at least one of their progressive-ed allies believes that NCLB testing requirements literally will kill kids.

Margaret A. McKenna, a big Kozol fan and president of Massachusetts’s biggest teacher-training institution, Lesley University in Cambridge, writes that NCLB’s “overwhelming focus on student achievement on annual standardized tests” will lead inexorably to more school violence like the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. After all, she argues, Columbine was a “high-achieving school,” where students felt alienated by the pressure of high-stakes testing. Teachers, obsessed with test scores, didn’t have time to get to know the kids and create a “real community.” That’s why they missed the telltale signs of student alienation and impending tragedy. Now, McKenna warns in a bizarre Washington Post op-ed, Columbine-like carnage is likely to explode in schools across the country as NCLB’s accountability requirements “force communities to focus more on raising test scores than on raising kids.”

In fact, the NCLB testing requirement is a crucial accountability tool, and not just because it can deprive poorly performing schools of federal education dollars if they don’t shape up. In Texas, explains Kress, “the shame factor of seeing your school on a list of schools that did poorly was itself positive—it created an incentive for change.”

The biggest falsehood that critics have promulgated against NCLB is that the bill represents an “unfunded mandate,” in that it doesn’t provide enough money to bring kids up to the standards it imposes. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert is typically dismissive. “It’s hard to believe the president ever intended to adequately fund the No Child Left Behind Act,” he writes, right after checking in with that objective source, Ted Kennedy. “Mr. Bush fights ferociously for the things he really cares about: enormous tax cuts for the wealthy, for example, or launching a war against Iraq. He has never showed a similar passion for the public schools.” In fact, the Bush administration will spend a whopping 49 percent more on public education this year than the Clinton administration did in its last year in office. In just four years, the Bush team will quadruple what the Clinton administration spent on reading programs over eight years.

In any case, the funding issue is a red herring. The schools’ woes have nothing to do with lack of funds. State, local, and federal expenditures on K-12 public education have tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1960 and are nearing half a trillion dollars a year. The nation today spends from 30 to 80 percent more per pupil than other industrialized countries. Yet the U.S. usually comes in around 15th in international comparisons of student performance in math and reading.

When President Bush signed NCLB without private school vouchers, many education reformers feared that the bill was a big setback for the school choice cause. Yet a major advance for school choice did make it into the act: Supplemental Educational Services (SES). Largely unnoticed by most commentators at the time of NCLB’s signing, the SES provision has turned out to be the new law’s school choice sleeper.

In effect, SES gives disadvantaged students in schools that have failed for three straight years a voucher—worth up to $1,700 in some states—to buy tutoring services from licensed providers, both public and private, including religious institutions. The tutoring money comes out of the federal funds allocated to the failing school’s district. Providers must win approval from state education departments and must sign contracts with the relevant school districts.

Some public school systems, feeling threatened by outside competition and wanting to hold on to the federal money, have balked at implementing SES services—delaying the signing of contracts or not informing parents of the tutoring options open to them. Last year, for example, the Buffalo, New York, public schools spent only $1 million in federal funds to tutor 800 kids, even though there were 9,000 eligible students and up to $14 million available for tutoring. In the Albany school district, where all the schools made the failing list, only one student is receiving SES tutoring so far, prompting Albany’s mayor to call school officials on the carpet publicly. Still, more than 110,000 children across the nation received SES tutoring in 2002–03.

And that number will surely climb as reform organizations rush to get the word out. National school choice organizations like the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options are leading the way, having received federal grants to run SES information campaigns. At the same time, more and more providers are signing on, including, in New York State, the Boys and Girls Club, the Urban League, Sylvan Learning, Kaplan, Princeton Review, and even the Youth and Families Department of the City of Albany. And they are starting to get results. “I think we are beginning to see improvement with children who are way behind in reading skills,” says Angel Staples, a third-grade teacher from the Buffalo public schools, about her moonlighting job as a tutor in an SES program. “It’s partly because we use a very scripted phonics program and partly because we can give the children a lot of individual attention in our small classes.”

Tom Carroll, a seasoned school choice activist in upstate New York, thinks that over time SES will whet parents’ appetite for more reforms. “What parents are willing to accept from their public school districts will change when they see that there are private groups and churches that may be doing a better job of raising their kids’ academic performance,” Carroll says. Further, though the Bush administration makes no such predictions, Carroll argues that parents will eventually start asking why the local church school that tutors their kids after school can’t teach them during the day, increasing support for publicly funded vouchers. Teachers College professor Henry Levin agrees, albeit ruefully. SES, he thinks, could be a Trojan horse, ultimately leading to vouchers. “By 2014,” he predicted, “we’re going to hear that public schools can’t do the job, but that private schools can.”

Though President Bush lost the fight to include vouchers in NCLB, he continued the battle on other fronts, with considerable success. Shortly after NCLB became law, for example, he sent solicitor general Ted Olson to the United States Supreme Court to argue for private school choice in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the historic case that tested the constitutionality of Cleveland’s taxpayer-funded voucher program, which includes parochial schools. No one can gauge how much the White House’s intervention swayed the justices’ 5-4 decision to uphold the voucher program, but no one in the courtroom could miss that the prestige of the presidency stood firmly in the pro-voucher camp.

A more momentous school choice victory was Congress’s passage earlier this year of a five-year voucher test program for Washington, D.C. “Had it not been for the administration, the voucher bill wouldn’t have passed,” says Department of Education official Nina S. Rees. “It took a lot of backroom heavy lifting and hand-holding in Congress on our part.” This fall, more than 1,000 poor minority kids in the nation’s capital will get vouchers worth up to $7,500 to be used at any private or parochial school of their choice.

Of course, the fight for D.C. vouchers wasn’t the president’s alone. As in Milwaukee and Cleveland, vouchers came to D.C. thanks to an extraordinary grassroots effort in the city’s black community. Crucial was the backing of D.C.’s popular black Democratic mayor Anthony Williams, who justified his support bluntly: “I got up one morning and decided there are a lot of kids getting a crappy education and we could do it better.” But the voucher campaign would not have succeeded without President Bush’s willingness to expend political capital. Under severe pressure from the two national teachers’ unions five years earlier, President Clinton had vetoed a similar voucher bill.

Significantly, in passing the voucher bill, Congress began to grasp that the choice constraints they had placed upon NCLB undermined the act’s effectiveness. As part of the final version of the D.C. voucher legislation, Congress issued a “finding” (as it does for many bills) describing the problem that the new law intends to deal with. In this case, the finding stated that the district needed a voucher program because NCLB’s “public school choice” provisions are “inadequate due to capacity constraints.”

So we’ve now come full circle since congressional Democrats forced President Bush to drop the private school choice option in NCLB. A majority of Congress now perceives that choice limited to the public schools is not a sufficient remedy for kids trapped in dysfunctional school systems like Washington’s. Therefore, the top education reform goal of a second Bush administration should be to revisit NCLB’s accountability and choice provisions when the act’s reauthorization comes due in 2006. Since the branding of so many schools as “failing” has vexed public school officials around the country, President Bush, along with his education reform allies in Congress, could offer Democrats this deal: “Let’s agree to limit the number of schools considered failing, but if we can’t find room in successful public schools for the kids from the really bad schools, then at least let’s give those children a chance at private schools.”

Even a limited number of vouchers financed with federal money would be a huge prize worth aiming for. But meanwhile, our education president is now in a position to change the national discourse about the nation’s public education system, explaining why it achieves so little, despite spending so much. Instead of merely rebutting his liberal foes’ charge that his administration has “underfunded” NCLB, the president needs to go on the offensive and teach the country the real lesson of American public education—that, if anything, we are overspending on the public schools and are not even close to getting our money’s worth.

Nothing would be a better classroom exhibit for the president’s lecture to the American people than a successful Washington, D.C., voucher program. As Bush education official Rees notes, it will be “rigorously studied” by supporters and critics of choice alike—which is why, she says, “I am spending 75 percent of my time on the D.C. program, making sure it is implemented well and sold to parents.” The Census Bureau has just released figures showing that the D.C. public school district spends a mind-boggling $13,400 per pupil—higher than any state in the union. Yet as everyone now knows, Washington has the worst schools in the country. When, as is likely, thousands of D.C. voucher recipients manage to find perfectly decent schools for $7,500 or less, even the most mathematically challenged taxpayers will comprehend just how much the public education system that President Bush has valiantly worked to reform has been ripping them off. And then, perhaps, the idea of school choice will begin to seem as sensible and commonplace as compulsory schooling itself.


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