Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Bush, G.W.

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The George W. Bush Years: NCLB - Politics of Enactment

The final provisions of NCLB took the Congress and administration a year to finalize. As noted earlier, President Bush initially presented his proposal to Republican majorities of both the Senate and House. In June 2001, however, Senator Jim Jeffords, a Republican from Vermont, changed his affiliation to Independent and joined the Democrats in organizing a new Senate majority. Jeffords had been chair of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over education, but the new chair was Senator Edward Kennedy from Massachusetts. From that point on, the legislation had to be developed on a bipartisan basis, requiring resolution of highly complex political positions. There were two groups of Democrats, referred to as "new" and "old," and two groups of Republicans, moderates and conservatives (with views carried over from the Contract for America of 1995).

Agreement on the bill was reached because the president persuaded his party of the need to establish Republican leadership in education, where Democrats had generally held that reputation. A major bill would provide a sound Republican plank for the election platforms of 2002 and 2004. The emphasis on accountability overrode the conservatives' dislike of federal intervention and more spending. Democrats, many of whom at first resisted efforts to help the president with an "education win," chose to cooperate for three reasons. (1) The bill was based on the concepts of their own legislation, IASA and ESEA. (2) The president strongly threatened to scuttle the ESEA reauthorization and cut education funds if there was no new federal initiative. Democrats saw this bill as the only way to persuade the administration to increase federal education appropriations. (3) In the Senate, "old" Democrats knew that some "new" Democrats were prepared to join the Republicans to pass a reform package that would have included vouchers for private school students and, therefore, made the bill appear as a complete Republican victory. The "old" Democrats, therefore, took control of negotiations with the president and held the overall party position together by working aggressively with their House counterparts, eventually realizing a bipartisan reform bill focused particularly on low-achieving students, but without vouchers. In the end, both parties, even with grave doubts about many provisions, had stronger reasons-both substantive and political-to support NCLB than to oppose it. After protracted negotiations, Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act (P.L. 107-110, a reauthorization of the ESEA) with strong, bipartisan support: it passed in the House on a vote of 381 to 41 and in the Senate on a vote of 87 to 10.


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