School Reform: Congress has stopped looking out for America’s kids

Editor’s note: The following column first appeared in The Hill newspaper and on

Last week President Obama invited a small group of journalists, including me, to talk with him at the White House.

The conversation was off-the-record. But speaking generally about the two-hour talk, I can say the president is intent on what is happening in Congress.

One example of Congressional dysfunction and failure that stands out in the last two weeks has to do with education.

The House had planned a vote on the “Student Success Act” on the last Friday in February.

After years of difficult debate, Republicans seemed to be on their way to passing a bill that at least provided a basis for future negotiations with the Senate.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) enthused that it was a “good conservative bill that empowers America and does not empower the bureaucracy here in Washington.”

But with the largest GOP majority in memory, the Speaker still could not get the votes to pass the bill and Republicans cancelled the vote. The Associated Press described it as a “political embarrassment for Republicans.”

It was a national embarrassment.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, managed to say only that he hoped to “finish this important work soon.”

But House Republican leaders have not scheduled another vote.

That means years of work on school reform have gone up in smoke. Why? The answer is a purely ideological grandstand play in which Republicans demanded the bill completely eliminate the federal hand in dealing with failing schools.

That was never going to happen. The bill already included more discretion for local and state government when it came to dealing with failing schools. The idea of eliminating the federal role while federal dollars continue flowing is absurd.

Too many states have a history of ignoring disadvantaged or disabled students for the federal government to relinquish all control. Total removal of federal oversight is, at best, a talking point for outside groups, including Heritage Action and Club for Growth.

But GOP hardliners abandoned the entire bill over this issue. They walked away from a decade of impassioned debate over fear of too much testing for students and too much pressure on teachers. There was too much political barking and too little focus on young Americans trapped in bad schools.

To make the death of efforts to help school children even more certain, the House Republicans weighed down the already-controversial bill with requirements that no federal dollars go to any school district with a health program that offers information on abortion.

That action betrayed the true priorities of several Republicans — to engage in political showboating while injecting a poisonous issue sure to kill the bill.

This era’s major effort at improving schools — the 2002 act called “No Child Left Behind” — was the work of leading Republicans, including President Bush and Speaker Boehner. They spoke with passion about the imperative that poor children got a good education and a chance for success. It expired in 2007.

Eight years later, the House Republican majority managed to make funding to help poor children into an excuse for not backing school reform.

Instead of money going to schools based on the number of economically disadvantaged students, the GOP wanted those federal dollars to become a voucher that attached to a poor child, irrespective of whether the public school attended by that child was performing well or badly.

This would have allowed federal dollars to be moved away from schools that might be doing excellent work, albeit within disadvantaged communities, to schools with no need for more money: schools in affluent areas with a mostly middle-class or wealthy student body.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that, within the next few years, the GOP proposal would have taken more than $3 billion from 33 large school districts serving high numbers of black and Hispanic children. Most of the money would have gone to the richest school districts.

I am a huge supporter of charter schools and vouchers — but not at the expense of hollowing out the entire public school system, or of taking away resources from good public schools that cater to marginalized communities.

In the proposal that came before Capitol Hill, the GOP plan would allow vouchers to be portable, whether or not the public school in question was failing.

It is not clear if a Senate bill being prepared by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will include a “portability” provision.

What is clear is that the House Republican hard line on vouchers ignited fears on the left of a slow death for all public education. Liberals speculated that the “portability” provision was a Trojan horse – and that it would eventually be extended beyond the public school system, allowing huge amounts of federal education money to end up in the hands of a few elite public, private and religious schools.

As a result, the hardliners got their wish. The Obama White House threatened to veto any bill with the “portable” voucher plan, on the basis that the proposal would cripple public schools in high-poverty areas.

The bill had other problems. It allowed for annual standardized testing but banned federal benchmarks for achievement. The bill also did nothing to improve early childhood education and did not reward innovative work by teachers and schools. Democrats and the Chamber of Commerce did not support the bill.

But at least it was a starting point, after all these years. What good is Congress if it has stopped looking out for children?

What happened on Capitol Hill to the school reform bill is the biggest, most tragic sign in years of a broken Congress.

Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC’s “The Five,” where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.