Bush to Obama: Education in Transition

As President George W. Bush leaves office with the No Child Left Behind Act as his education legacy, advocates look to the Obama administration with high expectations.

Education advocates — Black, Brown and White — had high hopes when George W. Bush took office eight years ago announcing he would usher in a new era of compassionate conservatism.

President Bush’s education legacy is inexorably tied to the No Child Left Behind Act, the comprehensive K-12 reform law he signed in January 2002. The law has drawn praise for requiring schools to show specific progress in educating minority and low-income children or face sanctions for failing to do so. But critics say the Bush administration failed to provide sufficient funding to support the law’s goals. Some also contend that the law forces educators to rely too heavily on “teaching to the test.”

What efforts Bush put into the country’s colleges and universities, many experts say,  were too little too late.

“When they introduced No Child Left Behind, that was such a major change and kind of a shift altogether, and I think it took up a lot of the policy discussions on education,” says Alisa Federico Cunningham, vice president of research and programs at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “It’s not that they didn’t focus on higher education. I think other things were more important.”

President Bush’s legacy on education, particularly for underserved minorities, though tarnished, isn’t all bad. His failures, however, may present opportunities for President-elect Barack Obama, who will face his own hurdles, education advocates say.

Bush steered more grant money to Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) and appointed an African-American as secretary of education, Rod Paige, during his first term, the first of many diverse cabinet appointments. During his second term, Bush’s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, formed a Commission for the Future of Higher Education, which told many advocates much of what they already knew: that too many young people of color do not graduate from college because they are ill-prepared, can’t afford tuition or don’t know how to navigate the complex financial aid system.

Bush’s accomplishments, however, will be overshadowed by his inability to deliver on bigger promises, such as signing comprehensive immigration reform into law. He also didn’t live up to his word when it came to sending more money to financially strapped historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), advocates say.

“President Bush, after his campaign, promised that he was going to dramatically increase 

Title III funding for the HBCUs; [he] didn’t do that at all,” says William “Bud” Blakey, Washington counsel for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), an advocacy organization for public HBCUs that also raises money to help students pay college tuitions.

Bush’s proposed 20 percent cut in tribal college funding last year did little to shore up his support among institutions serving American Indians. And one of the biggest issues Bush left undone is delivering on his promise to win approval for immigration reform. Such an accomplishment would have legalized millions of undocumented children of immigrants, so they would be eligible for a quality, yet affordable, college education.

By contrast, Obama says he wants to increase funding for tribal colleges and facility construction. That objective would seem to match nicely with goals of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, whose strategic plan calls for efforts to inform the new administration and Congress about tribal colleges. Elsewhere, Obama has cited the poor conditions of many Indian K-12 schools in making a commitment to repair some facilities and build new ones.

Obama has also included Asian Americans in his call for more bilingual education support. About 16 percent of adult Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders spoke English “not very well” or “not at all” in 2000, Obama’s Web site notes. The president-elect’s plan includes development of appropriate assessments for English Language Learners, a commitment to increase graduation rates of Limited English Proficient students and more support to help Asian parents get involved in their child’s education even if the adults lack English language proficiency.

In addition, Obama says he wants to pick up where Bush left off when it comes to overhauling the complex student financial aid application. While Bush wanted to simplify the form, Obama wants to get rid of it altogether and use tax records instead. He also wants to increase funding for Pell Grants as well as offer tax credits to help make attaining a college education more affordable.

Whatever Obama wants to do will be tempered, however, by the nation’s crumbling economy, education advocates say, which will serve as a reality check on how much Obama can actually accomplish.

“Money is going to be tight,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. As a result, Nassirian says, the new administration may tread lightly in education during its first months in office.

Diverse takes a look back at the accomplishments and failures of the Bush administration as well as a look ahead at not only what is expected from the incoming administration,  but what is realistically possible for Obama to achieve in education.

K-12 Education

When it comes to education, President Bush may best be remembered for signing into law No Child Left Behind. He won some praise because the law focuses on the needs of low-income students and penalizes low-performing schools that do not meet state standards.In 2007, “The Nation’s Report Card”  for education showed that 48 states either have held their own or made gains in all areas since the law’s enactment. The education department also says reading and math scores for most 4th and 8th graders also are at record highs, with many African-American and Hispanic students showing progress. But critics say Congress and the White House have never provided sufficient funding to support the program and improve failing schools.

Congress is considering proposals to extend and amend the law, but lawmakers have yet to forge an agreement — leaving the issue for the Obama administration. On his campaign Web site, Obama pledged to “reform” the law, starting with additional funding. In apparent agreement with some of the law’s critics, Obama’s Web statement also says that teachers “should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests” as a result of the law.

Readiness for college is another major Obama education theme, as he has called for a 50 percent increase in the number of students taking college-level or Advanced Placement courses.

One area where Obama may make a big splash is in early childhood education. He has called for a $10 billion investment in children from birth to age 5 so that more youngsters start elementary school ready to learn. This funding would include expansion of Head Start and Early Head Start programs as well as a challenge grant for states to expand pre-kindergarten or other early education programs.

The nation’s focus on the economy  also may be a boon for K-12 education, chiefly through a new economic stimulus package. Teacher unions say school construction and rehabilitation of outdated facilities can benefit the economy and improve children’s education. In promising an economic plan to create or protect 2.5 million jobs, the president-elect in late November identified school modernization as one of several areas for new federal investment.

“Obama has said that a cornerstone of any long-term economic plan must be an investment in quality public schools,” says Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.

Obama and the NEA may have challenges finding common ground on at least one issue as the president-elect has endorsed merit pay for teachers, something opposed by the nation’s largest teacher union, which claims to have helped deliver Obama votes in 14 battleground states.

Spellings Commission/Higher Ed Policy

In his second term, President Bush gave higher education more visibility through the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Also known as the Spellings Commission,  after U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, the blue-ribbon panel released recommendations in September 2006 calling for major changes in higher education finance and administration.

Among other recommendations, the panel proposed replacing “the current maze” of financial aid programs with a more streamlined system based on student and national needs. It also called for a major increase for need-based student aid along with some program consolidation and a simplified financial aid form.

The panel also expressed support for Pell Grant increases enacted during the past two years. However, there has been no action to date on consolidating financial aid programs, and provisions on accountability have received relatively modest attention so far.

Among some small steps toward implementing at least two of the panel’s proposals, the administration redesigned a federal Web site, called The College Navigator, to help prospective students research colleges and financial aid. They even created a version in Spanish.

Obama is likely to chart his own course based on his long-standing interest in the issue. For example, the president-elect likes to note that his first bill as a senator focused on increased funding for Pell Grants. Obama also has called for a refundable $4,000 tax credit to help students pay for college; in return, students would perform 100 hours of community service annually for two years.

He also has called for supporting college outreach programs such as GEAR UP, Talent Search and Upward Bound — some of the same programs Bush threatened to cut or to cap.  But the president-elect may face funding challenges. The new Higher Education Act reauthorization bill authorizes a top Pell Grant of $9,000 a year by 2012 for the neediest. students, and advocates already are working to promote that goal. Yet, aside from bailout and stimulus packages, there is likely to be little new money available for e listing programs. The current maximum Pell Grant is only $4,731.

“My guess is that he’ll come in with a series of nondivisive issues first,” says Nassirian. Simplifying the student aid application process could be one such issue. As a presidential candidate, Obama called for eliminating the current form and allowing families to apply simply by checking a box on their income tax return.

HSIs During the Bush administration federal grants grew for the nation’s 268 Hispanic-serving institutions, which historically had been slighted in funding, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Un i v e r s i t i e s (HACU).

When Bush first took office, grants totaled $68.5 million. By the 2007 budget year, they reached nearly $100 million. Though the Bush administration has since reduced the grants to $79.5 million in the current budget year, the amounts still grew.

The overall spending for HSIs rose more because Congress, through the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, is now requiring the federal government to spend $100 million a year on top of those grants. The extra money is mainly aimed at increasing the numbers of low-income Hispanic students earning degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.

Still, HACU analyses have found that HSIs receive far fewer federal dollars than the rest partly because more than half of HSIs are two-year institutions, according to Dr. John Moder, senior vice president and chief operating officer for HACU.

“I would guess there are only a handful of HSIs that are research universities, so on the assumption that a lot of federal funding goes to support research, that’s going to go to a lot of the major institutions, leaving out HSIs, not completely, but almost,” Moder says.

Obama made a campaign vow to boost funding to the nation’s community colleges with a new grants program — the Community College Partnership Program. Those grants would go to colleges that educate students in skills that are in high demand in local business. Such a program, by default, could benefit HSIs.

Dr. Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research for Excelencia in Education, says she is hopeful that Obama’s administration will put more focus on issues that have plagued Hispanics in higher education, including the lowest rates of college enrollment and degree attainment of any racial or ethnic group.

“There has not been a focus on accelerating Latino success,” says Santiago, who was deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans under President

Bill Clinton. “In order to get to a level we need for the work force, we’ve got to find a way to accelerate.”

HBCUs The appointment of Paige, a former dean of the college of education at Texas Southern University (TSU), as the U.S. education secretary proved a winning move in the eyes of the

Black college and university community in 2001. Blakey, of the TMCF, says the Paige appointment along with early moves by the first African-American education secretary served to heighten the expectations that President Bush had created after making campaign promises to boost funding for Black institutions through the Title III HBCU program and other federally supported efforts.

Paige appointed HBCU presidents to key positions on commissions associated with the education department and, for the first time in history, had the executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs report directly to the secretary of education, not an undersecretary.

“Those were some of the good things to happen,” says Blakey. “On the other hand, those expectations were not realized at the level that people had hoped.”

As an example, Blakey pointed to Bush’s failure to live up to his campaign promise to deliver more funding to HBCUs, and Paige’s inability to effect a different outcome.

While HBCU funding did not increase at a rate advocates had hoped for, the appropriation for the Title III historically Black colleges and universities program increased from $185 million in 2001 to $238 million this year. The HBCU graduate program moved from $45 million to $56 million during this time, according to the department of education.

In addition to the unrealized federal budget hopes for Black schools, the White House Initiative on HBCUs fell under heavy criticism after the office failed to produce timely annual reports on federal agency spending going to Black institutions for research grants, contracts and other  programs.

Under Dr. Leonard L. Haynes III, a veteran education department official and a former acting president of Grambling State University, the White House Initiative on HBCUs has begun to catch up on its backlog of annual reports and launch new initiatives for Black colleges over the past year. “It was critical to restore credibility to the White House Initiative (on HBCUs). … I think we’ve made tremendous progress,” Haynes says.

Lezli Baskerville, the president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), assesses the Bush administration in the context of what she sees as its failure to enforce the settlements of federal higher education desegregation cases dating back to the late 1970s. Those settlements include 19 states that came under obligation to ensure that public HBCUs are comparable to and competitive with their traditionally White counterparts.

Baskerville says public HBCUs remain largely underfunded when compared to predominantly White public institutions. “The Bush administration has been especially lackluster in enforcement.

The Office of Civil Rights in the Education Department has responsibility for monitoring the states. Monitoring was not done, and if it was done the historically Black college community was provided no information,” Baskerville adds.

“NAFEO is seeking to try to get a ‘bailout’ for several small, private HBCUs whose future hangs in the balance unless they get an immediate infusion of capital,” Baskerville says.

Black college advocates will closely watch how Obama reshapes the executive order that authorizes the White House Initiative on HBCUs, which many say should be located in the confines of the White House executive office structure instead of the education department.

Dr. James Minor, a professor of higher education at Michigan State University and an authority on Black colleges, says the executive order should strengthen the initiative such that it can have authority to compel federal agencies to increase its cooperation with

HBCUs. “There has to be a way where this new administration gives the executive director some leverage that could encourage the cooperation of federal agencies with HBCUs, whether it’s funding partnerships or contracts,” Minor says.

Immigration and the DREAM ACT Comprehensive immigration reform, heralded by Bush early in his first term, was sidelined after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A bill that would have legalized millions of undocumented immigrants finally made it onto the legislative calendar in the spring of 2007 — but failed.

Failing with it were efforts to legalize undocumented children of immigrants so they can qualify for federal aid and in-state tuition that would help make college more affordable for them.

Bush responded to the downfall of comprehensive immigration legislation by increasing crackdowns — late in his second term — of undocumented workers and the employers who hire them. The goal: increase the public trust that laws already on the books are being enforced so that legalization plans will be more palatable in the long run.

Many believe that under Obama and a predominantly Democratic Congress, more Hispanics may get a chance of attending college with the help of comprehensive immigration reform. In a questionnaire response to the League of United Latin American Citizens, Obama wrote that he’d put the issue “back on the nation’s agenda during my first year in office.”

But Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which promotes stricter immigration controls, says Obama will have even more trouble than his predecessor in passing immigration reform.

“While Obama has been committed to amnesty, so was George W. Bush and that was during a period of relative economic prosperity and low unemployment,” Mehlman says.

“There’s been something like 650,000 layoffs in the past three months … The priority for most Americans is that you get something done on the economy and try to get them back to work before you help people who violated our immigration laws.”

The issue of legalizing the undocumented children of those immigrants may be another matter. Obama has gone on record as a strong supporter of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a plan that would legalize undocumented children who want to attend college or join the armed forces. Legal status would allow them to qualify for federal aid and more affordable in-state tuition in places, like Arizona, that have outlawed in-state tuition for students who cannot prove their legal status.

“We know of students in high school who were going to go to the University of Arizona or coming to us at Pima Community College who simply cannot because they can’t afford the out-of-state tuition,” says Dr. Roy Flores, chancellor of Pima Community College.

“Unless they’re going to wholesale round up these children and dump them on the other side of the border,” Flores adds, “then make an effort to educate them.

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