Textbook?

Peter Baker turns in a long Washington Post piece today about No Child Left Behind and the Bush Presidency. This is a little unfair, because Baker’s charge was to examine the Bush presidency as part of a WaPo series, but Baker takes about 2,800 words to point out that Bush and Democratic Senator Kennedy still support the No Child law and want it reauthorized but it’s going to be hard. Really? Wow. I hadn’t read that on any one of a thousand education blogs or countless news stories. (Update: See also David Hoff’s different and journo-perspective here.) Still, it’s a mostly useful tick tock and overview if you haven’t been paying attention (though I’ll hazard a guess that if you read this blog you have been…)

The underlying storyline is pretty obvious: At 20-something percent approval ratings the President has no political capital to speak of. And, after six years, Democrats do not, with good reason, trust him or his administration much at all. Meanwhile the No Child law is every bit as much an intra-caucus dispute for Dems and Republicans as it is an inter-party fight. Not unlike immigration, and we saw how that turned out…

Too bad Baker, a great political reporter, didn’t delve more into those intraparty politics, especially (a) what it means for the Republicans who, through their primary process, seem to be having a fight over what their party is about and (b) what it means for Dems who have a clear wedge in their party between powerful interest groups and actual consumers of public education. Baker includes this gem but doesn’t really explore the ramifications:

The NEA steered $5.4 million into the 2006 elections, hoping the ouster of the Republican Congress might spell the end of No Child Left Behind. “They thought, ‘Yay, that’s it, we won, we’re going to move forward,’ ” said Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), a freshman elected with union help. “They didn’t factor in the fact that both Senator Kennedy and Chairman Miller have an ownership stake in this as well, and they don’t want to scrap it.”

In terms of the Bush presidency, they really had a chance to scramble education politics and wreak havoc on the Democrats (this was a real concern among Dems in the early days of the Bush Administration) but have completely blown it through their handling of this issue as well as many others. How about some examination of that?

Also, I get that the conceit of the piece was the Bush – Kennedy “partnership,” that’s interesting, etc…but is it me or did House Education and Labor Committee chair George Miller get short shrift in this story? Kennedy is obviously very powerful, but on this issue in many ways I think Miller’s support provides more political cover than Kennedy’s.*

Finally, and relevant to the architecture of the story, should note that along the way Baker falls for some spin or revisionist history from someone. Most notably he writes of the 2001 back and forth about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act:

Bush made education reform a cornerstone of his Texas governorship and vowed to do the same in the White House. But he made a rookie mistake out of the gate. Convening an education summit in Austin a week after Al Gore conceded in December 2000, Bush neglected to invite Kennedy, a master of the legislative process who had put his mark on nearly every education law in modern times.

A rookie mistake? Ummm…no. Bush invited the chairman and ranking member of the House education committee, the chairman of the Senate committee, and a host of Democrats including several senators, but “neglected” to invite Kennedy? Just an oversight! What actually happened is that Bush was deliberately trying to split Democrats, namely the moderates from the liberals in the Senate. The moderates had already supported on the floor an alternative plan for revising the Elementary and Secondary Act that could provide Bush with the votes he needed. The Bushies cut Kennedy out to try to get him to the table for fear that a deal would be struck without him and to be able to play one faction off against the other. It partially worked. Kennedy moved on some issues and came to the table. But what the Bushies didn’t count on is that while there was distance between Kennedy and the moderates on some issues, it was about issues, not about Kennedy per se, and so the moderates were happy to work with Kennedy and have a more united Democratic front on the issue especially at the beginning of a new administration.**

But it all worked out in the end and Kennedy has been a strong champion for the law because it comports with his basic commitment to equity. What Baker unfortunately doesn’t get into enough with this article is that underneath the public fight about money, which isn’t actually that interesting but gets a lot of play, there is basic agreement on the policy between Kennedy, Bush, and George Miller. What does that mean for education politics going forward? Can that “center” hold? And, apropos of money, can it hold without huge infusions of new resources, something that is not sustainable over the long run?

Two random thoughts:

First, this is anecdotal and I’d be very pleased if I’m wrong but when I worked at the White House I was always struck that when the President did something significant on defense, or health issues, etc…the big papers would have a beat reporter involved with the coverage in addition to the White House reporter. But on education, whenever we did much of anything, they seemed to always assume the WH reporter could handle it (everyone went to school right?). Seems a bad sign of the respect, or lack thereof, afforded to this beat…I mention that here because the beat reporters seem to have a better ear for the subtleties of some of this stuff…

Second, the best reporting on all the interesting ins and outs of the law during its passage from 1999-2001 remains Siobhan Gorman’s work at National Journal ($) (she covers nat’l security for the Baltimore Sun now) Detailed, got the nuance and the broader implications, and remains must-reading. More recently, National Journal’s Lisa Caruso turned in a solid piece on the politics and big issues in reauthorization this time around. Already a little dated because of events on the Hill, but still worth checking out to get up to speed.

*For instance closeness with Speaker Pelosi, the House is more susceptible to local pressure and the passions of the moment than the Senate, and Kennedy has more of a reputation as a deal-maker while Miller still has the Watergate-baby glow about him.

**Disc. I’m not just an arms-length observer, I had a role in all this but rather than my take you can get that of others in several recent books on No Child’s inception (Manna, McGuinn, DeBray, and clippings from the time).

6 thoughts on “Textbook?

  1. Anonymous

    Anyone notice the Dems putting a huge increase in the NCLB budget this year after years of suffering Bush’s short-change act?

    Ummm, me neither.

  2. Ed

    Speaking of a lack of respect . . . the newly hired and typically very young reporters for the Austin American Statesman are assigned two areas: obituaries and education. After gaining some experience, they can move into other roles.

  3. Anonymous

    While the article isn’t a bad though general overview, I question the statistics that were included about the effectiveness of NCLB. If you look across grade levels at those statistics, and look at children who have been under “NCLB” mandates for four-six years,(middle and high school students) their scores are unimpressive at best and stagnant or declining at worst.

    The use of statistics in regards to this issue are simple minded and limited at best, while purporting to be scientific.

    Teacher quality, real school reform and rethinking, and SUPPORT for continuing education for teachers remains at the heart of what is needed.

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