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Education: No Child Law, School Vouchers

President Bush watches as a kindergarten class practices math during a visit to Silver Street Elementary  School in New Albany, Ind., Mar. 2, 2007.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP/Getty Images
President Bush watches as a kindergarten class practices math during a visit to Silver Street Elementary School in New Albany, Ind., Mar. 2, 2007.

What Bush Said: President Bush asked Congress to hark back to one of the triumphs of his first term: passage of the No Child Left Behind Law in 2002. He asked Congress to reauthorize the law. "The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement," he said. "It is succeeding. And we owe it to America's children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law."

The president also called on Congress to approve a $300 million voucher program. It would provide grants so that low-income students in failing schools could attend private or religious schools. He called the program "Pell Grants for Kids," an allusion to the popular federal grant that helps low-income students attend college.

Analysis: Many educators dispute the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Teachers in particular say they're being asked to meet unrealistic standards, and have demanded more flexibility. Last year, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller responded with an ambitious rewrite of the law, but the White House says those changes would greatly weaken No Child Left Behind. The discussion never got very far, and the effort to reauthorize the law stalled.

Bush pointed to data showing that last year, fourth- and eighth-graders achieved the highest math scores on record. He didn't mention that reading scores in those grades have stagnated, despite No Child Left Behind. The president noted that African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time high scores. What he did not say is that the "achievement gap" between whites and minorities remains very large. For Hispanics in particular, that gap has been particularly hard to address, and has not decreased during the period covered by NCLB.

Meanwhile, the voucher idea is not popular among many groups. Teachers and school administrators reject it outright, saying that vouchers steal money from public schools, which they say are already starved for funds. Democrats generally agree, and have shot down virtually every attempt to sponsor vouchers, except for the very limited D.C. Opportunity Scholarships cited by the president in his speech.

Outlook in Congress: Most education experts believe it is highly unlikely that the No Child Left Behind law will be reauthorized during an election year. They expect the law will stay on the books in its current form until a new president, and a new Congress, take office. As for the proposed voucher program, there is little chance Congress will even take up this idea in the president's final year.

On the Campaign Trail: Democrats running for president have all promised to radically revise or even to repeal No Child Left Behind. This month, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton said she would scrap the law, criticizing NCLB for narrowing the school curriculum by focusing primarily on reading and math. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has criticized the administration for underfunding the program. But even a Democratic president would find it tough to throw out No Child Left Behind, because congressional Democrats, including Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, helped write the law and remain committed to its basic principles.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.