The president wasn’t wrong when he said during his State of the Union address that the No Child Left Behind Act is “succeeding,” though he cherry-picked the available evidence to document his claim. Six years in, the best that can be said of NCLB is not that it’s causing test scores to soar (some are up a bit) or bad schools to be transformed (most are unchanged), but that it’s yielding a trove of data by which we gain unprecedented knowledge about which schools, kids, states, and districts are performing, and which aren’t, which are getting better, and which aren’t. Sunshine is finally breaking through the swirling clouds of educator claims, denials, and obfuscation.
That sunshine is still patchy, to be sure. Flawed state standards, incompatible tests, a screwy federal definition of progress, and a fair amount of game-playing and finagling continue to make it far harder than it should be to know how American K-12 education is doing. Certainly, we know more today than we did yesterday; we could know still more tomorrow than we do today. Indeed, the most important repair that Washington could make to NCLB would be straightening out the measurement-and-reporting system. For at day’s end, turning around schools, improving curriculum, strengthening teaching, and getting kids to learn more can’t be micromanaged from the shores of the Potomac. Such work is proper to parents and communities. Uncle Sam can best help by getting the standards, tests, and reporting arrangements right, so that everyone has solid information about their schools, and by then getting out of the way.
There is, however, one exception to this community and state-based model that the President rightly identified: we know from painful experience that states and communities, left to their own devices, mostly do an inferior job of moving poor students from bad schools to better ones. Though perhaps a third of U.S. families are exercising school choice today, by and large those are families with the means to change homes or write tuition checks. Millions of low income children (mainly in big cities) remain trapped in bad schools. Perhaps the greatest disappointment of NCLB is the failure of its “public school choice” program to create viable educational options for large numbers of those youngsters.
No, Mr. Bush didn’t say that; he didn’t explicitly acknowledge the weak spots in NCLB. Instead, he offered a good idea for helping kids in urgent educational need: scholarships to cover the costs of attending other public and private schools. Pell Grants for Kids, he called them, because they’re modeled on the well-known program of need-based grants for college students. He asked for $300 million to pay for them which constitutes a relatively small program by federal standards. At, say, $5000 per kid, it would cover 60,000 scholarships at a time. (For perspective, the current D.C. voucher program benefits about 2400 youngsters; Milwaukee’s voucher program assists 17,000 kids at about $6,000 apiece.) But it would be a hugely important precedent as well as an obvious educational boon for those lucky girls and boys.
Note that the Bush plan would cover public as well as private school tuitions. Though a number of states have created open-enrollment plans whereby any child can attend any public school in the state (space permitting) without paying, in far too many states a youngster seeking to enroll in public school in a district other than his or her district of residence must pay tuition to do so — tuitions that typically exceed those of Catholic parochial schools. That’s a lousy way to run a public education system but so long as such tuition barriers persist, they deter poor kids from accessing better public schools. Hence the need for financial aid.
As White House aides know, Pell Grants for Kids isn’t a new idea. Senators Bob Packwood and Pat Moynihan proposed something almost identical in 1979. In 1992, the President’s father, advised by Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and Assistant Secretary Diane Ravitch, proposed a “G.I. Bill for Kids” along similar lines. As U.S. senator, Senator Alexander, has revived the proposal on several occasions.
To date, Congress has scorned this very good idea. Odds are that will happen again with the President’s new plan — and that will be a pity indeed. The greatest shame of American education is our inability to help poor kids flee dreadful schools for better ones — a shame about which we are more aware than ever, thanks to NCLB.
–Chester E. Finn Jr. is senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.