Bush's School Agenda Fails Conservative Test

May 14, 2005

By William L. Bainbridge

The No Child Left Behind law represents the largest assault on local control of America's schools in history.

Yet shortly after his inauguration in 2001, President Bush announced his approach to education policy by emphasizing local control of schools. Speaking at the National Conference of State Legislatures on March 3 of that year, he said, "I can assure you this administration understands the importance of local control of schools, that we don't believe in the federalization of the public-school system, that one size does not fit all when it comes to education." He also said he would not support a national student-skills examination. This fits with the conservative philosophy, which espouses, among other things, local control and states' rights.

But neither Bush nor his political appointees at the Department of Education perform like conservatives.

During the Clinton and Carter administrations, conservative politicians condemned liberals for "top-down'' actions from Washington. But Bush and his secretaries of Education, first Rod Paige and now Margaret Spellings, have been on unprecedented top-down management sprees since taking office.

The appointments of Paige and Spellings from political rather than traditional educational-leadership paths were hardly conservative moves. Paige was a coach and college dean prior to being elected to the Board of Education of the Houston Independent School District. In an unusual political coup, he moved from board member to superintendent of the huge district and then on to the federal post. Paige, known for his broken relationships with many education groups, once referred to the National Education Association as a "terrorist organization." More recently, the Department of Education under Paige initiated a questionable public-relations arrangement with talk-show commentator Armstrong Williams, who was paid a more-than-conservative $240,000 for various efforts to promote the No Child Left Behind law.

Spellings previously was assistant to the president for domestic policy and was a senior adviser to Bush when he was governnor of Texas. She recently responded to criticism of the Washington-knows- best policies on implementing the No Child measure by offering states more flexibility in meeting federal-testing requirements -- if they can show they're improving student achievement. Under federal order, states still must conduct annual testing, reduce learning gaps for minority and low-income students and meet teacher-quality requirements.

But the No Child law moves control over instructional and curriculum issues away from teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards, where it should be, and places it in the hands of federal and state educational bureaucracies and politicians.

The massive increase in testing that the law imposed on schools has hurt educational performance. The impact is highly correlated with increased dropout rates in most states. In a stinging rebuke, the Republican-dominated Utah Legislature recently passed a measure ordering state officials to ignore provisions of the federal law that conflict with Utah's education goals or that require state financing.

This is the most explicit legislative challenge to the federal law by a state, and its passage marked the collapse of a 15-month lobbying effort against it by the Bush administration.

Having the Department of Education manage education from shore to shore can hardly be called a conservative cause. In less than five years, Bush has presided over more government expansion in public education than took place during President Clinton's eight years.

Although claiming to oppose big government, Bush has expanded it to monumental and unprecedented proportions. He claims to champion states' rights but supports actions not previously experienced by increasing federal involvement in the governance of the nation's public schools.