Give the Pols a Gold Star: The New Education Law Broke the Partisan Logjam and Helped Quell a Poisonous Debate

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

Pop quiz: what percentage of 18- to 25-year-olds can correctly identify the vice president of the United States? The answer, according to a Pew survey released last week, is 51 percent. (Older Americans do about 15 points better.) Maybe Dick Cheney should come out of hiding after all.

The "No Child Left Behind" act that President Bush signed last week isn't going to improve Cheney's name-recognition numbers any time soon. It won't immediately get rid of third-rate principals or make sure your first grader knows how to read. But the $26 billion law, the most extensive education reform in more than three decades, is by almost all accounts a major step in the right direction. It's also a big W on the scoreboard for Dubya, and a win for bipartisanship, too. "I told the folks in the coffee shop in Crawford, Texas, that Ted Kennedy is all right," Bush said in Boston, with a beaming Kennedy at his side. "They almost fell out." Don't hold your breath waiting to see that quote in the Republican National Committee's next direct-mail campaign.

I have no idea how much the politics of the education bill will help Bush politically; the Enron story certainly stepped on his victory parade. But the final bill does say something good about the ability of both parties to set aside a poisonous education debate and actually get something done. The shorthand for how that happened is "Only Nixon could go to China." (History lesson for the 49 percent who can't identify Cheney: in 1972 only an anti-communist like President Nixon could get away with opening relations with communist China.) Only a Democrat like Bill Clinton could get relativist liberal "educrats" to accept the idea of clearly defined standards, which he did in important 1994 legislation. And only a Republican like Bush could get conservatives to drop their demand for vouchers and sign off on a bill that will lead to 25 percent to 30 percent increases in federal aid to poor schools.

The focus of the bill is accountability, especially for reading. Instead of being tested haphazardly, every public-school student in grades three through eight will be tested every year by the state in reading and math. If a failing school doesn't show improvement after two years, the system will force management changes and offer parents federal money for private tutoring. One essential reform goes by the clunky name "disaggregation." It means that schools will have to separate out how various minority groups perform, instead of hiding their lagging test scores in larger averages. This will force even successful suburban districts to focus more on minority achievement, which should increase pressure to improve remedial classes across the board.

The huge bill is full of these information-is-power provisions, all for use as cudgels by parents and reform-minded educators. High schools, for instance, will be required to notify parents if a teacher is "out of field." That means that you'll be told if the gym coach assigned to teach your kid math doesn't even have a bachelor's degree in math or science. …