President Bush urged lawmakers yesterday to renew No Child Left Behind, his landmark education initiative, but one of his biggest political liabilities in achieving that goal comes from an unlikely source: his former aides.
Five years after they helped craft and implement the initiative, senior administration officials from Bush's first term are speaking out against the law with increasing boldness. The shift, combined with mounting criticism from both the political right and left in Congress, is causing supporters of the law to worry that it might not win renewal this year.
Speaking in the East Room of the White House yesterday, Bush repeated his plea for speedy passage of the law. "The No Child Left Behind Act is working, and Congress needs to reauthorize this good piece of legislation," he said.
Bush might have expected that Eugene W. Hickok, a relative of the legendary frontier lawman Wild Bill Hickok and the original sheriff of No Child Left Behind, would support his drive for renewal. As the No. 2 Education Department official in Bush's first term, Hickok wrangled states and schools into compliance with the law so forcefully that foes called him "Wild Gene."
But Hickok, who is now urging Congress to revamp the initiative, said in a recent interview that he always harbored serious doubts about the federal government's expanding reach into the classroom.
"I had these second thoughts in the back of my mind the whole time," said Hickok, a former deputy education secretary. "I believe it was a necessary step at the time, but now that it has been in place for a while, it's important to step back and see if there are other ways to solve the problem."
The rift among Bush's advisers mirrors a GOP intraparty struggle that erupted in March when 57 Republican lawmakers -- including Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.), a former Bush housing secretary -- signed onto bills that would allow states to opt out of key No Child Left Behind mandates. The legislation, which the White House has criticized, draws on a proposal Bush himself made in early 2001 but quickly dropped.
Many Republicans contend that the administration's criticism of an idea it once proposed shows the White House has strayed too far from conservative principles. Conservatives, some of whom supported the law only out of fealty to Bush, feel freer to speak out against No Child Left Behind now that the president's popularity has sagged and many parents and educators have complained about what they call onerous federal mandates.
In his comments yesterday, Bush said the law has been a success, citing a recent study by the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, which found that the nation's students have performed significantly better on state reading and math tests since the measure went into effect. He also trumpeted some of the conservative education policies that his administration has pursued: creating a private school voucher program in the District; subsidizing private tutoring for public school students; and promoting public charter schools.
"When schools fail to make progress, No Child Left Behind needs to give parents different options," Bush said. "In other words, you cannot tolerate a system where a child is stuck in a school which will not teach and will not change."
Some conservatives were leery of the largest expansion of the federal role in education in a generation, but most wanted to support Bush in his first year, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"The president said, 'Jump!' and you said, 'How high?' " said a former senior education official who described the law as fundamentally flawed. Like most of the dozen former officials interviewed for this article, he spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve his relationship with the administration.
Many Republican lawmakers supported the Bush education plan because it proposed publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools. The original Bush plan also promised, "States and school districts will be granted unprecedented flexibility by this proposal."
But Bush dropped those ideas in negotiations with lawmakers, and the measure passed both houses of Congress in 2001 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Then-Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige and his lieutenants began to set the law in motion. Hickok and his colleagues said they supported the law at the time, despite misgivings, in part because it focused unprecedented attention on public education and achievement gaps between privileged and disadvantaged students.
But former officials said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, the top White House education adviser in Bush's first term, stymied efforts by top department officials to grant states more control over how they carried out the law. "Margaret wasn't very interested in flexibility," Hickok said.
Spellings and Paige declined to be interviewed.
Yesterday, Bush rejected the criticism that No Child Left Behind is an inflexible federal intrusion. "Quite the opposite," he said. "The federal government has said: 'We believe in local control of schools. You reform them. You fix them. We're just going to insist you measure in return for the billions we spend on your behalf.' "
Former officials say the Education Department is not fighting hard enough for private school vouchers. "It will literally determine whether some kids have a future or not," said Gerald A. Reynolds, assistant education secretary for civil rights from 2001 to 2003 and now chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Katherine McLane, a department spokeswoman, said Spellings is pushing for private school vouchers to be included in the renewal of No Child Left Behind.
Conservatives were also disappointed that a provision of the law allowing companies to receive federal funds to tutor disadvantaged students was not widely used. "We certainly had hoped for more opportunities that parents would have for choice," said Ronald Tomalis, a former assistant education secretary.
Some former senior department officials said they have a strained relationship with Spellings over first-term disputes and her second-term agenda. That friction might hinder her efforts to gain support from key education groups and lawmakers for renewal of No Child Left Behind, several senior officials said. Many of those groups and lawmakers have close ties to top officials from Bush's first term.
The legislation Republican critics introduced in March is drawing support from several former department officials, including Hickok and Brian W. Jones, the department's general counsel from 2001 to 2004, who said he endorses the concept.
"There has been disappointment among conservatives like me," Jones said. "Those of us who consider ourselves federalists believe that at some point, the federal government needs to step back and vest states and local authorities with the power to get to the original goals of No Child Left Behind."
Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.