States should expect to be held more accountable for student performance if President George W. Bush gets his way. In the first week of his presidency, Bush outlined his education agenda, which gives states more flexibility in exchange for more accountability.
Bush's proposal emphasizes reading and math in the early grades by forcing states to prove student performance is improving with annual testing that also breaks out the progress of minority students. The test scores of students in grades 3-8 would be the measuring stick.
Bush would allow parents to send their children to other schools, private or public, with federal assistance if a school failed to meet performance standards for three years. As Governor of Texas, he was not able to convince lawmakers to issue vouchers.
States would be subject to financial penalties if their schools failed to meet their own standards for what students should learn at each grade level.
The plan, which could become part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the main Federal education initiative also boosts programs to improve teacher quality and requires states to certify teachers in the subject they teach.
It also challenges states to improve English fluency among students and requires more measures to ensure student safety in schools.
The same day as Bush unveiled his proposal, U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, the running mate of Bush's 2000 Democratic rival for the presidency Al Gore, released a similar plan. Both radically redefine the federal role in education and both will be used as frameworks for discussion.
The Bush blueprint drew praise for its commitment to improving education and its focus on closing the achievement gap, with more lavish kudos predictably coming from the new president's fellow Republicans.
Pennsylvania Education Secretary Eugene W. Hickok says Bush's announcement "ushered in a new era in public education in America, one that creates a strong partnership between the federal government, the states and our local school districts."
"We truly have a partner in the White House who understands and is talking about the same process, the same measurements, the same approach and the same passion that we have for education here in this state," Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said in a written statement. Kempthorne was among the governors who met with Bush on Friday (1/26) to discuss his education agenda.
Virginia Delegate James Dillard, who chairs an education committee for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) says that Bush's proposal focuses on results. "It emphasizes accountability, something state policymakers have been doing for a decade," Dillard said.
Predictably, the voucher aspect of Bush's plan came under fire from teachers' unions and education officials in some states.
North Carolina Rep. Bobby Etheridge, a Democrat and former Superintendent of Schools in the Tar Heel State, said: "The voucher proposal is dead on arrival as far as I am concerned. North Carolinians do not want their tax dollars to go to pay for private schools. We need to invest our public dollars in our public schools," I've been in this business long enough to know that the devil is in the details. "
The National Education Association (NEA), a 2.6 million member educators union, voiced great concern over the use of vouchers to increase accountability. NEA President Bob Chase said that voucher schools aren't held to the same state standards as public schools and said the strategy relies on a "failed political gimmick."
Doug Stone, spokesman for California's Democratic Superintendent of Education, Delaine Eastin said the Bush proposal is a "good beginning with one caveat the issue of vouchers."
In November, voters in California voted down a sweeping voucher ballot initiative. Stone says Bush's proposal isn't practical for the Golden State.
Mississippi Superintendent of Education Richard Thompson, also a Democrat, is also concerned about vouchers. "The one thing that is problematic (with the Bush plan) is the "V" part. Vouchers are not really a good option in much of our state because there is not a good alternative to the public schools," Thompson told stateline.org.
All 50 states test students and 49 have standards that spell out what a student should learn in each grade. Existing state tests vary in style, alignment with standards, and they do not all test the same grades. Bush would require all states to annually test students in 3-8.
Currently, only 16 states test grades 3-8 annually, according to Andy Rotherham an education specialist at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank.
New Hampshire Education Commissioner Nicholas Donohue told the Concord Monitor Bush's testing plan would require much more money and it would force him to hire more staff.
"The President and Congress should be mindful of the limitations of federal funds which constitute only 7 percent of total education spending in the country. Federal assistance is a vital part of education reforms, but to suggest that all student achievement springs from the small federal share by measuring overall student academic progress is unwise and unfair," said Brenda Welburn, President of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), an organization that represents state education policy makers in Washington.
Kathy Christie, an analyst with the Education Commission on the States, which monitors state school policy, says sanctions and stringent accountability may frustrate states to the point of opting out. "Because federal dollars are very minimal, some states may pull back and say this isn't worth our time and we aren't taking federal dollars."