Ballot Box

Policy Corner: Bush Ed

The reviews of George W. Bush’s proposal for education reform, unveiled three weeks ago in California, have been largely favorable. Sober-minded columnists and education reformers have praised the plan, which hinges on taking federal money away from failing schools and giving it to parents to use elsewhere. But the analysis has neglected one salient point about the Bush program: It already exists in Texas. And it’s a failure.

Under Bush’s proposal, states would be required to test their “disadvantaged” students on academic basics every year. If a school’s test scores didn’t improve after three consecutive years, the federal government would take away its contribution that comes under an aid program known as Title 1. This federal money would then go to parents, who could use it as a voucher to pay for a private school, tutoring, or another public school–“for whatever offers hope,” as Bush put it. In announcing the plan, he estimated that the Title1 chit would be worth about $1,500 per student.

You can find the details of how something similar actually works in W. country in a Sept. 3 Houston Chronicle story by Melanie Markley and Kathy Walt. Under a program that Bush has promoted (but did not initiate), Texas tests all its students and schools just as he envisions doing nationally. Students have to take the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). On the basis of that test and a few other factors, schools are rated in one of four categories: “low-performing,” “acceptable,” “recognized,” or “exemplary.” Only one school in the entire state–Goodrich Elementary School, 60 miles outside Houston–has been rated “low-performing” for three consecutive years. What would happen to Goodrich under the Bush plan? This school, which has 150 students, gets only $47,000 in Title 1 funds each year. This means that parents would receive a voucher worth not $1,500 per student, but $313.33. That doesn’t buy a lot of hope, even in Goodrich, Texas. In fact, there are no private schools in the vicinity, which means that there wouldn’t even be anyone to turn down this sorry-assed excuse for tuition.

What about urban districts? It so happens that Houston has a program that is both more generous and more stringent than Bush’s proposal. It says that students who fail the Texas test and who attend schools rated “low-performing” by the state for just one year, can receive a credit of $3,575 to attend private school. It’s not exactly a voucher, since the school district negotiates directly with private schools to place these students. This year,147 students in the Houston Independent School District qualify to opt out of failing public schools under this program. How many have taken advantage of it? Zero.

The Chronicle story offers a couple of explanations for this. For one thing, the Houston school district didn’t identify which students qualified for the program until August, by which time it was too late to enroll elsewhere for this year. But the bigger problem is that even $3,575 isn’t enough to pay tuition at a private school in Houston. Four or five private schools did contact the school district to express interest in the program, but all considered a payment of $3,600 too low. Tuition at run-of-the-mill private schools in Houston runs more like $5,500 for the school year. At elite academies, it can be as much as $12,000 per year. Since the Chronicle story was published, one private school has agreed to accept 25 students. It’s a mostly African-American religious school, which intends to create a separate secular facility for the public-school transfer students.

If private schools in Houston won’t accept a $3,600 voucher, it’s pretty clear that a $1,500 voucher won’t produce any real choice for parents. And if there’s no choice, there’s no competitive pressure on failing public schools, which is the chief justification for the program. To find out whether vouchers can actually improve education, Bush would have to offer an additional incentive worth several times the federal government’s Title 1 spending (currently around $8 billion). But even the compassionate one isn’t prepared to run afoul of conservative dogma to the extent of proposing spending tens of billions of additional federal dollars on education.

The Texas story points to another fatal flaw in Bush’s proposal. How is it that only one school in the whole state of Texas has been rated “low-performing” for three consecutive years? Bush might have you believe that it’s because he has done so much to improve education in Texas. In fact, it’s because the state standards are riddled with loopholes. Schools can exempt students judged to have learning disabilities, or who have limited English skills, from taking the state test. Schools do this–and the state permits it–to avoid punishment and embarrassment. It’s the bureaucratic equivalent of social promotion. How likely is it that states would set up stringent systems of evaluation and accountability for the sake of having their federal education funding taken away? Not very. Bush is proposing that federal education dollars come with strings attached. But the people receiving the dollars get to pull the strings.

There’s a way around this problem: set federal education standards. Reading at a fourth-grade level should mean the same thing in Goodrich, Texas, that it does in Bismarck, N.D. With a single standard, you could measure any school against any other school and truly assess their progress or failure against a common baseline. Checker Finn and Diane Ravich, two of Bush’s education advisers, have championed this idea in the past. Yet Bush’s plan steers entirely clear of national standards in favor of state ones. The implicit reason is, once again, that anything the federal government does runs afoul of the conservative dogma, which says that education is an exclusively local responsibility.

More money and strict federal standards would make Bush’s plan plausible and interesting. Until his work improves, he deserves a D.