The President's Budget: A thought experiment

Conventional wisdom posits that the President’s 2007 Budget is nothing but a collection of recycled education policies (and cuts). The same old private-school choice proposal that never goes anywhere. The same high school reform plan that crashed and burned in 2005. The same 40-odd programs proposed for elimination that Congress always spares in the end. Even the same funding levels for most major programs.

But what if we view the budget plan as a forward-looking document, rather than a hit parade from the past? What if we consider it masterful foreshadowing, providing hints of the Administration’s intentions for next year’s reauthorization of No Child Left Behind?

One thing becomes clear: the Administration is finally grappling with what to do about truly bad schools—those that have been “in need of improvement” for five or six years and now face “restructuring.” The number of those schools is about to rise dramatically, and the Texas crowd seems to be acknowledging that the sunlight and shame of test-score data won’t be enough in and of themselves to lift such failed institutions out of their funk.

The President offers two reasonable ideas. The first is a thoughtful (if awkwardly named) choice program, America’s Opportunity Scholarships for Kids. A retooled version of previous Administration proposals, this would target children in “restructured” schools with tuition grants of up to $4,000 or expand the allotment for supplemental services (free tutoring) to $3,000. Linking choice to the worst-of-the-worst schools is smart policy and politics. These institutions are not on the “bad schools” list by accident, and it’s unconscionable to keep children chained inside them any longer. In fact, the President’s idea is so good that one may fairly wonder: Why didn’t he even mention it in his State of the Union Address? That he didn’t is not a good sign of his willingness to expend political capital on the program—which is the only way it’s conceivably going to pass Congress.

The second, related idea is to spend $200 million on School Improvement Grants. These funds are for state departments of education to develop “school support teams” and other interventions for failing schools. Though there is reason to be skeptical that such teams will be effective, at least Washington is recognizing that states are the linchpin when it comes to NCLB’s accountability-and-intervention system, and that today few of them are equipped for the job. The law is not going to implement itself.

Just remember: when the Administration reveals its reauthorization plan next year, you heard it here first.

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