Education Takes a Back Seat in Election

Editor's note: This article is the fourth in a series on issues in the 2004 presidential campaign.

A few years ago it looked like President Bush owned the education issue and any focus on education would be to his benefit. Much has changed since then, and now the GOP is fighting to return the president to his early advantage.

In March 2001, Bush's approval rating on education hit a high of 65 percent. But a Gallup Organization poll in August 2004 found his approval rating on the issue had dropped to 47 percent. And a July Gallup poll showed Bush trailing Kerry on the issue, with 50 percent of voters favoring Kerry and 43 percent favoring Bush on the issue.

The education debate in the presidential election has been largely defined by implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (search), the massive education reform legislation that was passed with bipartisan support but is now tied closely to the president.

Bush has touted the legislation as a major step in improving America's schools.

"We now have got, in return for increased federal spending, a system that says, why don't you measure early to determine whether or not a child can read, and if not, we'll correct the problems
before it's too late. And we're closing an achievement gap in America," Bush said Wednesday during a campaign stop in Colorado. 

But NCLB, which was signed into law in January 2002, has become a major focus of Kerry's attacks on Bush's education policy. Although he voted for the legislation, Kerry says the program has been under-funded.

"No Child Left Behind Act, I voted for it. I support it. I support the goals. But the president has under-funded it by $28 billion," Kerry told undecided voters during the presidential debate at Washington University in Missouri last Friday.

"Right here in St. Louis, you've laid off 350 teachers. You're 150 — excuse me, I think it's a little more, about $100 million shy of what you ought to be under the No Child Left Behind Act to help your education system here. So I complain about that. I've argued that we should fully fund it. The president says I've changed my mind. I haven't changed my mind: I'm going to fully fund it," Kerry said.

Education experts disagree whether the fact that Bush pushed through the enormous education reform will help or hurt him on Election Day, but they concede that the issue has taken a back seat in this race.

"This election is not going to hinge on the education issue," Chester Finn, a conservative education expert, said at an event sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (search). "If it were, George Bush would win in a walk. ... He is the first Republican to receive the mantle of education reformer."

"While war in Iraq and terrorism dominate national news coverage, there are dozens of articles about No Child Left Behind every day, most of them negative," countered Joel Packer, policy expert at the National Education Association (search), the nation's largest teachers union. "The percentage of the public with negative views is increasing. The public gets it."

Bush stands behind NCLB as a huge success, and a major plank of his education platform has been explaining and talking about this success. Although the administration acknowledges the legislation needs to be tweaked, Bush also would like to see it extended.

Bush has said he will provide $250 million annually to extend state assessment of student reading and math skills to high school students. He says he would strengthen Head Start and other early childhood programs and would like to see an expansion of outreach programs involving literacy, minorities and faith-based communities.

Finn said the president's proposals are nothing more than normal adjustments to a massive federal program.

"This important law can work, should work; it must work, but like all important innovations, it will require some fine tuning," said Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (search). "I think if it weren't an election year, nobody would bat an eye about this. It's perfectly normal for big federal legislation to require adjustments."

Kerry's critique on funding is that the legislation is not funded to its authorized level, though the administration points out that the authorization is a ceiling, not a floor. Still, Kerry says that NCLB's under-funding has prevented thousands of schools from being able to hit the law's education achievement targets. According to language on the Kerry-Edwards campaign Web site, implementation would be more successful with more money and if it were not done in such a “rigid, top-down” fashion.

In addition to pushing for more funding for NCLB, Kerry says he would like a national initiative to align the academic standards in high school. He also has suggested building smaller high schools to replace large, troubled ones.

Another piece of Kerry's plan is to "offer a new bargain" for teachers. This would include recruiting teachers for high-needs subjects and schools, offering pay hikes of at least $5,000, providing teachers with more professional support and ensuring fast, fair procedures for improving or replacing teachers who do not perform. Some education experts consider this language a significant departure for the Democratic Party, which has a close relationship with teachers' unions.

Although Finn said Bush could only benefit at the polls from NCLB, Packer offered a different perspective.

"I'm sure he thought this would be one of his crowning achievements. ... The polling shows at best it's a wash," Packer said, adding that the biggest barrier Bush has in capitalizing on the issue is funding. "The public is concerned about the resources."