On the Offense


On Tuesday at the White House, President George W. Bush unveiled an outline of his long-awaited education plan. The plan offers something to offend everyone. Which might be the reasons it's garnering at least limited support from all over the political spectrum. In summary: Prepare yourself for a larger role for the federal government in education. And prepare yourself for federally funded vouchers for low-income students in failing schools.

Candidate Bush placed education on the top of his agenda, striking a balance between what he felt is a need for more federal action (which grates on conservatives who cherish limited government) and more local control (which grates on liberals who cherish nation-wide policies). Drawing on his experiences as governor—states, unlike the federal government, have long played active roles in local education—and the success of welfare reform, Bush called for block grants, large chunks of federal money that states can spend with relatively little supervision from Washington. "As president, I will begin by taking most of the 60 different categories of federal education grants and paring them down to five," he proclaimed in 1999. "Improving achievement among disadvantaged children; promoting fluency in English; training and recruiting teachers; encouraging character and school safety; and promoting innovation and parental choice."

Bush's plan insists that school performance must be measured through annual tests, with the results made available both to Washington and to parents. Yet state officials, not D.C.-based civil servants, would create and administer the tests. Local officials will be free to innovate, but like charter schools, they must set and meet goals. Schools that consistently fail to educate their charges will get extra federal money—call it a failure bonus—and help in developing an improvement plan. But if they don't meet performance targets over three years, Bush would provide students at failing schools with a $1,500 voucher that could be used at private schools; if a student transfers to a public or charter school, parents could use the $1,500 for tutors.

Advocates for increased school funding get more money—and more flexibility in how to spend it. Those who've been pushing for market-based education reform get accountability and "portability," the voguish term for the $1,500 voucher. As a result of that mix, people ranging the longtime school choice proponent William H. Mellor, president of the nonprofit Institute for Justice, to liberals Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) have voiced at least limited support for Bush's plan.

Still, advocates in the center-right coalition that form a significant portion of Bush's support are concerned that the president is going soft on vouchers. In early January, Bush officials were signaling to a least one reporter that they were willing to ditch the limited voucher component in service of a deal. And at the White House event yesterday, he danced around the contentious issue, saying only that parents needed "meaningful options."

"There are differences of opinions about what those options should be," said Bush. "I made my opinion clear in the course of the campaign. I'm going to take my position to the Hill and let folks debate it." Talking points distributed to Bush backers on the Hill never mentioned vouchers or portability. According to The Washington Post, Sen. Kennedy emerged from a White House meeting saying, Bush "didn't want vouchers to be a stumbling block."

This has Bush supporters worried. "He talks about accountability, about local control, about consequences for non-performance, all of which are consistent with what you've heard before," says Mellor, who attended the White House event. "But how he chooses to articulate those in legislation is not yet apparent. What's particularly troubling, given the signals that have been emanating from others in his administration, is that choice may be one of the first elements of his agenda to be jettisoned in any compromise."

Bush can't be faulted for not pushing a larger voucher program—the federal government doesn't have that big a role in education, at least not yet. Less than 10 percent of total spending on grades K-12 comes from Washington. And it's clear he won't do anything to impede state and local experiments. In fact, he promises to encourage them, by funding research about the benefits of school choice.

But the portability component is critical to his overall plan. Without it, his reform amounts to business as usual: The feds send more money to states in return for a promise to do better, with no consequences for failure and no realistic out for the low-income families who bear the burden of that failure. This, minus the rigorous testing, is what Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and other moderate Democrats are proposing.

While Mellor and other voucher proponents have their questions, others are more sanguine. "President Bush is doing what he said he was going to do and we're not used to that in the White House," says a high-spirited Joseph Viteritti, a former New York public school administrator and current professor at New York University. "I'm encouraged for a change. I really am."