Come together on education

Ten years ago, then-President George W. Bush hosted Ted Kennedy, John Boehner, Judd Gregg and George Miller on Air Force One, traveling first to Boehner’s Ohio district for the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and then to New Hampshire and Massachusetts to share the accomplishment.

What led up to that day was quite a story. Sadly, it’s a story that’s hard to imagine playing out in today’s political environment. But it’s a story worth remembering.

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People today often say collaboration on major national issues, while possible then, can’t happen anymore because politics has become more poisoned. Maybe, maybe not.

President Bush first sat down with George Miller just weeks after a bitter presidential election was resolved in the Supreme Court — not exactly a sweet and easy time. Yet, when this conservative Republican and this liberal Democrat met, they found they shared a deep commitment to improving education for disadvantaged students. On that, at least, they could work as partners. 

I had the great pleasure of being in the room when President Bush first talked education with Sen. Kennedy. They, too, didn’t generally agree on much, but they shared a sense of urgency about the need for real change in the education of poor children. And so they agreed to work together to effect that change.

The negotiation wasn’t easy. Democrats want to spend more money, and Republicans don’t like a strong federal role. But both sides were determined. The federal government had invested in helping disadvantaged students for 35 years, and yet the decade of the ’90s had seen a stall in progress.

Bush believed that taxpayers deserved a return on their money spent on education. He wanted parents, teachers and taxpayers to know objectively how well students were learning, and he wanted consequences for success or failure. The president also wanted to increase parental choice and reduce other federal conditions.

Democratic leaders wanted more funding for federal programs and no part of vouchers or limits on federal programs.

The president and the Republicans agreed with the Democrats to a $4 billion spending increase for K-12 education. Democrats kept vouchers off but agreed to rigorous accountability, privately run supplemental education services and a modest reduction in programs.

Both sides negotiated in good faith, respected and honored one another, and reached a deal on policy to address major national needs of the day. This wasn’t one of those “bipartisan deals” in which one party gets a bill passed with the support of only a handful of members of the other party — 80 percent of all Democrats and 80 percent of all

Republicans in both chambers voted for the conference report.

Was NCLB perfect? No. No legislation is. It needs repair and enhancement — after all, we’re now five years overdue in reauthorization.

But NCLB did what its bipartisan parents wanted. It shined a light on the achievement gap. Its policies pushed states and districts hard to take action in schools where low-income students, students of color and students with disabilities had regularly been swept under the rug. It furthered a revolution in promoting better teaching in schools serving disadvantaged students. It insisted for the first time that the gaming of dropout policy and data had to stop. And, by promoting National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing for all states every two years, it laid a regular marker against which state standards could be compared and, if appropriate, strengthened.

Mainly, it spread the policy of accountability for student results from a few pioneering states to all states.

And, while there’s much more to do, progress has been considerable. After the stagnant ’90s, NAEP scores for each ethnic group rose considerably in the 2000s at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. While gains are larger in math, performance is up for each group, in both grades and in both subjects. And what should make NCLB’s bipartisan parents particularly proud is that the scores of African-American and Hispanic children are up the most, often reflecting advances of more than a full grade level. This is a civil-rights victory that must be preserved and grown.

It’s time for leaders from all sides to come together with their various ideas on education and negotiate a strong, coherent policy that will serve our nation going forward. Whatever else that deal contains, I hope that it strengthens, rather than loosens, the pinch of accountability, so we can make even greater advances for disadvantaged youngsters.

I remember the feeling of mutuality and shared contribution on Air Force One that day. May its memory never be so faint for ourselves and our leaders that we forget that it’s a blessing when people come together in harmony.
 
Kress served as senior education adviser to former President George W. Bush.