Commentary | Budget Taxes and Public Investment

Bush Education Plan: Where Does It Take Us?

Share this page:

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.

DISTRIBUTED BY KNIGHT-RIDDER MEDIA SERVICES, MAY 2001. 

Bush Education Plan: Where Does It Take Us?

by Doug Harris

The Bush education plan has been called a “roadmap” to success — the right destination and the roads to get us there. Unfortunately, it appears that the President has outlined a plan to build a road to nowhere.

The President’s plan, “No Child Left Behind,” focuses on the large test score gap between students from low-income families and students from high-income families. The President deserves praise for making this a national priority. There are millions of children willing to study hard and pay their dues to reach their dreams. They simply never get a realistic chance.

To improve the situation, Bush has mapped out a journey with three legs — increased accountability, more testing, and decreased regulation.

The President’s talk about accountability is tied to the idea that schools should be run more like businesses. There is some truth to this — no system can work without incentives to promote good performance.

But this doesn’t mean that a simple business model works. The goal of business — profit — is much less complicated than the goals of education. Schools are not assembly lines producing widgets. Schools must inspire children to be creative, responsible citizens. Test scores aren’t the only measure of success.

Bush hasn’t justified his call for more testing, or for the federal government’s role in it. Schools are already administering tests required by states, school boards, and prinicipals – so many tests, in fact, that students, teachers, and parents often boycott them.

The President also says he wants to increase local control and flexibility. But the most striking feature of his plan is that it significantly increases federal regulation on testing and school report cards.

This is the official route that Bush has planned. But the map doesn’t show the many back roads that the President has in store for us.

Look no further than page one of “No Child Left Behind” to find these detours: “Our high school seniors trail students in Cyprus and South Africa on international math tests.” This is almost certainly false, but that’s another story.

What’s interesting about Bush’s reference to other countries is that it has nothing to do with closing the gap — leaving no child behind.

The truth is that Bush has a different destination in mind. First, he wants all schools to focus more attention on test scores. This may be justified for some low-performing schools, but it is certainly not justified for the overwhelming majority of schools that are doing a fine job.

Second, he wants to make schools look more like businesses. Test scores replace profit. Teachers replace line workers. Instead of GM competing against Toyota, we’ll have American students competing against the Japanese.

The irony is that the same countries Bush wants to beat on tests are now looking to the U.S. for guidance, realizing that a narrow focus on test scores does not help their children or their economies.

The President’s stated goal of helping disadvantaged children is right on the mark. It’s in everyone’s interest to help these kids. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do. But Bush’s map takes us down a very different road than he’d have us believe.

Doug Harris is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

[ POSTED TO VIEWPOINTS ON JULY 13, 2001 ] 


See related work on Budget Taxes and Public Investment

See more work by Doug Harris