A leading issue in the last presidential campaign, education has been nearly off the radar in a race fixed on the question: Will the nation be safe? Still, there are clues in the 2004 campaign on another national security issue: Will the nation be smart?
US taxpayers spend more than $500 billion a year on K-12 education, but American student achievement lags behind that in many other industrialized nations. Not even 1 in 3 American fourth and eighth graders meets US proficiency standards in reading and mathematics. Black and Hispanic students still often score several grade levels below their white counterparts.
Faced with these challenges, both President Bush and John Kerry supported the No Child Left Behind Act, which uses federal dollars to leverage changes in everything from how often students are tested to the consequences for school systems if children are not learning.
But if both agree in principle that Washington has a role in improving local schools, they still have significant disagreements on education, seen in their sparring over No Child Left Behind. For President Bush, the backlash against NCLB signals that reform is working. In a second term, he would stay the course: Make needed adjustments, then expand its principles into the nation's high schools.
For Senator Kerry, the outcry signals a need to fund the law more fully - and possibly to revise it. Leading Kerry supporters, including the nation's teachers unions, oppose the law.
"One thing that is encouraging is that both candidates see closing the achievement gap as the most important problem in public education. The differences are in tone and approach, rather than a big deep philosophical divide," says Ross Wiener, policy director of the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group for poor students.
Both Bush and Kerry support preschool and after-school programs, but differ over the future of Head Start, a popular preschool program. Bush wants Head Start to shift emphasis to developing literacy skills and turn over control of the program to the states. Kerry says Head Start should be fully funded so that every eligible child can attend. He also proposes a "School's Open 'Til Six" initiative for some 3.5 million children.
The next occupant of the White House could also have a significant impact on higher education. With college tuition costs rising and state spending on colleges decreasing, Washington faces increased pressure to step in with more funding, especially as Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act next year. President Bush proposes year-round Pell Grants for low-income students. Kerry is offering a tax credit of up to $4,000 of tuition for every year in college, as well as federal aid to states that curb tuition hikes.
But on the campaign trail, and over the next four years, the No Child Left Behind law will remain front and center in education policy.
The complex law has sparked a backlash in schools across the nation. Teachers and some parents worry it is punishing schools, sometimes unfairly, instead of adequately funding reforms necessary to improve them. On the other hand, some conservatives say that education is a strictly local concern and that Washington belongs out of it.
Whoever sits in the White House for the next four years will have to navigate these currents - and set the tone for how this law is enforced, determining how much teeth it has: What constitutes acceptable state standards? How much flexibility will be granted in meeting federal requirements?
Bush supporters say that a Kerry presidency will not challenge the education establishment. Critics say that without the kind of overhaul that Kerry is proposing the NCLB law may collapse of its own weight. "President Bush does not seem to realize that there are serious problems in the NCLB Act," says Michael Rebell, executive director for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.
"There is no way there will be a qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006 [an NCLB requirement] unless a very serious effort is made to raise teacher salaries and working conditions and, in return, higher levels of performance and being able to get rid of teachers who don't perform."
"Schools should be held accountable, but not punished," says Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, which represents many teachers. Where the NEA has been largely cut out of Bush's deliberations, Kerry "would treat us with more respect," he adds.
While the senator voted for the NCLB Act in 2001, Kerry says the law has since been underfunded by at least $27 billion. He calls for a $200 billion trust fund for education over the next 10 years. Kerry has also since has criticized the "one size fits all" approach of the new law and the danger of turning schools into "testing factories." He has not said how he would change its mandates. One likely target: the law's complicated formulas for schools to show "adequate yearly progress."
At the high school level, Kerry proposes breaking up troubled large high schools, developing a more rigorous curriculum, and requiring more uniform and accurate data on dropout rates. He calls for increasing teacher salaries by some $9 billion, especially in hard-to-staff subjects and schools. Early in the campaign, he also proposed linking teacher bonuses to gains in student achievement, an idea the NEA opposes. Unlike Bush, Kerry has not endorsed school vouchers or aid to private or parochial schools.
Bush says in a second term he would boost funding for the nation's low-performing high schools, but expect higher student achievement as a result. He also aims to require all states to develop rigorous annual tests for high school students, including exit exams. Under Bush, federal funding for K-12 education is up 49 percent.