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Bush wants to expand NCLB in high schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For educators across the nation who have complained about inadequate funds to support the testing and school improvement mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s new education budget proposal raises the same issue once again. It offers more mandates, but $530 million less in federal funding.

What’s different in the federal budget plan unveiled in February is a focus on high school reform.

The Bush budget for the year that begins October 1 would eliminate 48 federal education programs and cut many others. The biggest single loser would be vocational and technical education, with its $1.3 billion to be shifted to fund Bush’s new high school initiative.

If approved, the budget would also eliminate federal funding for arts education, comprehensive school reform grants, state grants for educational technology, and the GEAR UP college awareness program (see College awareness, better preparation are goals of GEAR UP program).

The Bush administration argues that the programs slated for elimination have proven ineffective. The new budget focuses on "key priorities" and "getting results," according to Margaret Spellings, the new head of the Department of Education.

A different view of the budget comes from Senator Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is minority leader of the Senate committee charged with oversight of education.

In a February interview in Education Week magazine, Kennedy called the education budget "just inadequate to meet the education needs of this nation." Kennedy added that the country "ought to be able to afford the kinds of investments in the No Child Left Behind Act, vocational education, and in higher education which are absolutely essential."

High school initiative

The federal budget would shift some funds to programs focused on improving high schools and would fund an expansion in grades 9-11 of NCLB’s accountability provisions and state testing in reading and math. The law currently requires testing of students in only one high school grade.

Speaking at a recent Education Writers’ Association conference in Philadelphia, Department of Education spokesperson Hans Meeder described the administration’s goal: "Every youth will complete high school with the academic skills and knowledge to make a successful transition to post-secondary education or training without remediation."

In the view of administration critics, the Bush high school initiative is strong on lofty goals but still short on dollars. The president’s budget proposals would shrink U.S. Department of Education funding by about 1 percent, to $56 billion, the first cut in the department’s budget in a decade.

The Bush high school reform package totals roughly $1.5 billion, most of which is covered by the shift in funds away from vocational education. About $1.2 billion of this package would go to a flexible fund for "high school intervention" that would assist struggling students. Another chunk, $250 million, would pay states to develop new standardized reading and math tests for high school students.

Questioned about the adequacy of the new federal high school funds – less than the price tag for one Trident submarine – Meeder said that the Bush administration is prepared to help states pay any increased costs that result from the new assessments. Meeder said that beyond this, states are on their own. He added, "For most schools, the resources are there."

There are no administration plans to make mandatory the controversial high-stakes exit exams that are required by some states (but not Pennsylvania). The Department of Education is also largely neutral on the small schools movement – a national trend in high school reform that seeks to replace the traditional comprehensive high school with small, student-centered units. Funding for small schools reform comes mainly from the private, nonprofit sector, notably the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The passage of the Bush education budget in its present form is by no means a done deal.

Political analysts have predicted that on some issues, like funding for vocational education, liberal Democrats will be joined in opposition by many Republicans, including some members of Congress who are well-placed on key committees. The president faces growing opposition to NCLB from members of his own party, and so the expansion of testing in high schools grades will be controversial in Congress.

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter raised a set of concerns in a February letter to the Washington Post, writing, "The Bush budget will make it difficult to provide adequate funding for Head Start, special education, No Child Left Behind and mentoring at-risk students."

While public education advocates are gearing up for battle against the budget cuts, there is little likelihood of new support for embattled urban school districts like Philadelphia.

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