President George W. Bush submitted his education proposal to Congress last Tuesday, stressing accountability and voucher-based programs for schools.
“Both parties have been talking about education reform for quite a while,” Bush said in a Rose Garden ceremony. “It’s time to come together to get it done, so that we can truthfully say in America no child will be left behind.”
The $47.6 billion plan would require states to administer yearly reading and math tests to students in grades three to eight to determine which schools need improvement and to what degree.
The accountability aspect is in sharp contrast to the packages of previous administrations.
During the Reagan-Bush years, more focus was placed on international academic competition. Instead of new policy initiatives, there was a reduction of already existing post-secondary programs such as student loans. Traditionally, Republican administrations have been in favor of dismantling the Department of Education.
The Clinton administration increased spending on existing educational programs, introducing few new programs.
Under the proposed Bush plan, institutions identified as failing schools would be given a three-year period to measure up to federal standards. Schools unimproved after two years would be subjected to “corrective measures,” such as having their principal removed, or having their students given federally funded transportation to a public school with a better record.
Schools failing to improve after three years risk losing their federal funding — a controversial aspect of Bush’s voucher program.
Displaced students would use the money to pay for private tutoring or to transfer to a private school.
At the state level, 20,000 students are using vouchers nationwide and programs also exist on the city level.
Steven Balla, assistant professor of political science at the George Washington University, said “the evidence” on whether or not vouchers improve academic performance “has been essentially inconclusive.”
Balla supports a “widescale experimentation with vouchers,” but expects vouchers to “be one of the first things to go” from the president’s proposal.
This component has drawn fierce opposition from teachers unions and other education professionals since Bush first proposed it during his presidential campaign.
A counter scheme by Democrats is nearly identical, with the exception of the divisive voucher provision.
“I think there’s a disagreement within the administration as to whether to fight for vouchers or to use vouchers as a trading chip to get the bill through Congress,” Fred Hess, professor of political science and education at the University of Virginia, told U-WIRE.
While the controversy over vouchers is heated, standards and accountability are “a given,” according to Mark Schneider, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Schneider said such standards are vague, failing to “identify failure” and the measurements of standardized tests.
Schneider pointed out that many standardized tests are not value-added tests because test performance is correlated with the socioeconomic status of students.
“We need to be able to tell the difference between schools that are doing badly because of the socioeconomic status of their students as compared to schools that are just bad,” Schneider said.
Another voucher hurdle involves the price of tuition at private institutions. In its current format, recipients of federal education funds for private education would receive approximately $1300 per student.
With the majority of private schools priced at more than that amount per year, (approximately $2,200 for elementary and $5,000 for secondary schools), the majority of parents prepared to make up the difference would be high income-earners.
The program may exclude lower-income students and families and also blurs the line between church and state, Schneider pointed out.
The plan faces congressional approval — a task that may take time, according to George Washington University Professor Steven Balla.
“Education, historically, has been pretty contentious across the aisle,” he said. “The general outline of the package will see the light of day by summertime.”