Reform bridges political divide

29th October 2004 at 01:00
As the United States presidential race reaches its climax, Stephen Phillips reports on implications for education policy

Pundits predict a record voter turnout for what many are billing as the most contentious US presidential election next week. But while president Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry's manifestos are sharply polarised on foreign affairs, economic and domestic policy, their education platforms share a surprising amount of common ground.

This much is apparent from the wall-hangings above the desk of David Dunn, Mr Bush's top education aide, in the Eisenhower executive office building, next to the west wing of the White House.

A picture shows Mr Bush signing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in January 2002 under the gaze of Edward Kennedy. Mr Kennedy is regarded as one of America's most left-wing lawmakers, but his patronage of NCLB illustrates broad bilateral support for the school reform.

Another sponsor was Massachusetts's other senator, John Kerry. Both candidates have embraced standardised testing, accountability and charter schools, and agree that NCLB was landmark legislation.

In a radical departure, NCLB focuses on the trailing edge of achievement, introducing the idea that schools are only as good as their lowest performers by holding them accountable for the progress of historically overlooked students.

For many this was a rude awakening, says Mr Dunn. "It's a different way of looking at things. I can't tell you how many schools say 'But we're a good school' and we say 'Yes, but the data shows you can improve the scores of minority, low-income and special-needs kids'."

Despite this, Mr Dunn's Texas twang and cowboy boots bear the unmistakable mark of the Bush administration. Democrats associate him with the same "our-way-or-the-highway" style that has alienated former US international allies and antagonised teachers.

They contend that the White House has turned a deaf ear to legitimate complaints and botched NCLB's implementation.

And Mr Bush has not coughed up the funding needed for schools to realise the Act's goals, Mr Kerry has said.

"I voted for it. But the president underfunded it by $28 billion (Pounds 15bn)," he said recently.

To plug the shortfall, Mr Kerry has proposed a $207bn education fund using money recouped from repealing the president's tax cut.

He has proposed adding other performance yardsticks for schools, such as attendance and parental satisfaction, when the law comes up for renewal in 2007.

He says he will also increase the budget for small schools, which Mr Bush has cut, and extend after-school programmes to keep children of working parents off the streets.

Countering charges that he would be cramped by the teachers' unions - among the Democrats' biggest backers - Mr Kerry has defied them by calling for staff pay to be linked to student performance, and "fast, fair procedures" to remove ineffective teachers.

If Mr Bush wins a second term, expect an extension of NCLB's testing regimen to secondary schools and early childhood literacy programmes for older pupils, says Mr Dunn.

Whoever occupies the Eisenhower building next year, there is a good chance at least one wall fitting will remain the same.

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