WASHINGTON – President Bush is ready to shift his education focus to older students, building on the law he pushed through before terrorism and war came to define his presidency.
No Child Left Behind (search), Bush's first big domestic legislative victory, orders schools to show yearly gains among students regardless of their race or background.
The federal role in education has never been so big, and the president says his plans to expand the law "could move pretty quickly" in the new Congress.
"Do you remember the No Child Left Behind Act?" Bush said in his first news conference after his re-election, when asked how he would reach across party lines. "I think there's the model I would look at if I were you."
Yet some say that model needs much repair. Many Democrats who supported the law criticize what they call lackluster spending and enforcement under Bush's leadership.
And with an expanded majority in Congress, some Republicans want Bush to put his power behind a more conservative school-choice agenda. That would mean a bigger push for private-school vouchers and charter schools, which are public but largely independent.
"We're going to find out a lot about what George Bush is really all about," said Andrew Rotherham, who directs education policy for the Progressive Policy Institute (search), a think tank aligned with centrist Democrats. "He would be better remembered as the president who put in place the framework for closing the achievement gap -- not the one who got a multicity voucher plan passed, which is the base-pleasing stuff."
Bush wants to extend his education law by requiring two more years of state math and reading tests in high school grades. That's part of a broader promise to improve high school standards, graduation rates and the value of the diploma -- all of which are welcomed, said Patty Sullivan, a leader of the Council of Chief State School Officers (search).
Even with the larger GOP majorities in Congress, Bush still lacks the votes to halt Democratic delay tactics in the Senate. Since the election, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on education, has signaled he wants to work with Bush to make early childhood learning a bigger priority.
There's still plenty of room for bipartisan school progress, Kennedy said, "without taking divisive steps, such as diverting scarce public education dollars to private schools."
Yet in the House, Education Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, will look for ways to work with Bush and others to expand school choice, spokesman David Schnittger said. Bush has won vouchers in the District of Columbia and transfers for students out of some struggling schools across the nation. The agenda also includes such items as extra pay for teachers whose students perform well. But given the deficit, spending won't come easy.
"There won't be many surprises on education," Schnittger said, "but there will be a lot of action."
That's because Congress has a backlog of laws due for updates. They include:
--Head Start (search), the popular preschool program for poor children. Bush wants the program's emphasis shifted toward literacy, and he favors giving states more control.
--Higher education, where Bush has a series of college-aid plans and will push for greater accountability in how that money is spent.
--Vocational education, the federal program that helps students prepare for trade and technical jobs. Bush wants to require more academic rigor from such schools receiving federal aid.
Bush also must choose a replacement for departing Education Secretary Rod Paige. Topping the list of potential replacements: Margaret Spellings (search), the president's domestic policy adviser.
And then there is the question of what to do about No Child Left Behind, a matter expected to continue dominating the national conversation over schools.
Although the law is lauded for its goals, Democrats and Republicans say some parts need work, including the way school progress is measured. The Bush administration has shown some flexibility but appears unwilling to adjust the law before its scheduled update in 2007.
"There is a range of concern out there, from serious and thoughtful to outrageous and disingenuous," said Rotherham, a former adviser to President Clinton. "The administration has done a terrible job of distilling that. They need to rebuild the broad bipartisan coalition."
Or not. Some Republicans say Bush can't satisfy Democrats, particularly on funding, no matter what he recommends. They want the White House to be more proactive about No Child Left Behind and to keep shaking up what they deem to be a public education monopoly.
"My cardinal rule in Washington is you're on offense or you're on defense," said William Bennett, who was education secretary under President Reagan. "They're on defense too much."