As the Senate completes its blunting of President Bush's once-bold plan to overhaul the federal role in elementary-secondary education, most of the final decisions await a House-Senate conference committee.
But the measure's outlines are clear and, for the most part, dismaying. There will be no real school choice or empowering of parents. There will be no true flexibility for change-minded states to channel their federal education dollars into reforms of their own devising. Few of today's hundreds of narrow "categorical" programs will be merged. There will, in fact, be no fundamental overhaul of this LBJ-era legislation, despite decades of evidence of its failure. But there will definitely be a whopping price tag, as billions of additional dollars are attached to these meager reforms.
What happened? In hindsight, it's clear that the White House began with the plan it should have ended with, always a dubious strategy. When it came to tax cutting, the administration welcomed proposals that went farther than it really wanted, thus positioning itself in the middle. In education, however, the White House discouraged conservatives from offering their own bill, which meant the president's plan was the most "extreme" version out there. On a high-visibility issue in a closely balanced Congress, that meant dilution was inevitable.
The administration also insisted on a "bipartisan" measure, which meant compromising with veteran Democratic education craftsmen Edward Kennedy in the Senate and George Miller in the House. Masters of their art, they ended up with nearly everything they wanted. That meant lots more money—and the elimination of every "conservative" feature of the Bush plan.
But congressional Republicans didn't help much, either. Obliged to support their president, which meant tolerating all those leftward compromises, they trotted out their "choice" and "flexibility" amendments knowing that these were doomed. The one place House conservatives actually made things worse was testing. They could not abide the Bush proposal for all states to have their achievement gains audited by the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress. So they voted to let states pick their own audit instruments. If this provision survives conference, we can expect a lot of false "good news" and a worrisome weakening of the country's most important test.
But that's not all the conferees must contend with. Their biggest challenge in this thousand-page measure is an obscure provision called "adequate yearly progress" (AYP), which tells states and schools how much achievement-boosting they must deliver each year en route to leaving no child behind.
This formula is intricate beyond anyone's capacity to explain to parents and teachers. It's susceptible to concealing failure by poor and minority kids. It's none too demanding regarding the rate at which these gaps must be closed (10–12 years). Yet conferees are being urged to soften it further.
How AYP got weakened and complexified is a sorry backroom tale. Suffice to say that, however Congress finally phrases it, successful implementation may never occur. And that, alas, is the bottom line for the whole bill: after all this fuss, it's quite likely not to lead to any discernible change in America's schools.