Bill Clinton, George W. Bush & ESEA Accountability


June 22, 2015

By Charles Barone

This blog is Part 4 of ERN’s “Presidents and Education” Series

Bill Clinton George Bush

As reported in a previous post, the Clinton Administration missed an opportunity in 1994 to require states and districts to disaggregate achievement data for at-risk groups of students. But that’s only part of the story. Because it was also Clinton who gave George W. Bush a chance as Governor to push disaggregation – and accountability for narrowing achievement gaps – at the state level and, ultimately, take it all the way to federal policy.

Related: “Presidents and Education” Part 2 on the politics of data disaggregation 

In 1995, President Clinton launched an initiative called “Ed-Flex” that granted waivers from federal law to states and school districts (e.g., allowing a district to use its own criteria, rather than the federally prescribed formula, to distribute Title I funding to schools ). The Clinton Administration argued that states would use their new flexibility to improve outcomes for all students by lifting all boats, including those of underserved groups. The marketing catchphrase was “flexibility in exchange for accountability.”

States got flexibility. But, as it turned out, Ed-Flex states were neither particularly rigorous nor innovative.

Related: “Presidents and Education” Part 1 on the theatrics of Common Core

First, there apparently was not a very high bar for approving states’ Ed-Flex proposals. Out of the 13 states that applied, 12 were granted waivers.

Second, states were not all that innovative. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a preliminary report on Ed-Flex in December of 1997 and concluded that most states and districts used their flexibility to redistribute targeted resources. As the GAO noted, “Most [waivers]…have sought to change the way funds are distributed or to broaden the range of individuals who may benefit.”

Third, the vast majority of states did very little to hold districts and schools accountable for student outcomes. In its final Ed-Flex report issued in November of 1998, the GAO lambasted the lack of accountability in Ed-Flex states:

Wide variation exists among Ed-Flex states regarding whether they have established clearly defined goals to measure the results of waivers received by districts and schools. Some states and districts have expressed their goals only in the vaguest of terms, while others have been more precise. For example, in one state only nonspecific goals were reported, such as “a commitment to the identification and implementation of programs that will create an environment in which all students actualize academic potential.

Was this an isolated example? Apparently not. Flexibility in exchange for accountability was a popular catchphrase in Washington, but it was only embraced at the time by 1 of 50 Governors.

According to the GAO:

Only one Ed-Flex state – Texas – has set specific numerical criteria that are closely tied to both the schools or districts and the specific students affected by the waiver. For example, Texas expects all districts that receive waivers under Title I to make annual gains on test scores so that in 5 years 90 percent of all students will pass the state’s assessments in reading and mathematics. In addition, Texas’ districts must make annual gains so that at the end of the same 5-year period, 90 percent of African-American students, 90 percent of Hispanic students, 90 percent of white students, and 90 percent of economically disadvantaged students will pass these tests.

Related: Part 3 of the “Presidents and Education Series” on the legacy and missed opportunities of the Reagan Administration

Who was the Texas Governor who made the achievement of at-risk groups of students a state priority? George W. Bush.


No one was making a big deal at the time about Texas’ data and accountability system but it intrigued Congressman George Miller, a policy wonk with political chops who was then the second ranking Democrat on the House Education and Labor Committee. [Full disclosure: I was Miller’s top education advisor between 1997 and 2003]. When a bill to expand Ed-Flex to all 50 states came to the House floor for a vote in March of 1999, Miller (along with Dale Kildee, D-Flint) offered an amendment to require all Ed-Flex states to adopt something akin to the Texas approach.

The Miller-Kildee amendment failed by a vote of 196-228, with every Republican voting no and all but nine Democrats voting yes. While Miller and Kildee lost that battle, they set the stage for a subsequent alliance between top Congressional Democrats and Bush 43 – who at the time of the Ed-Flex debate was still three months away from declaring his candidacy and who was by no means seen as the inevitable nominee – to do something powerful and constructive to focus attention and resources on historically disadvantaged groups of students. No Child Left Behind, which put disaggregation of data and gap-closing accountability into federal law, passed out of Congress and was signed into law by Bush 43 less than a year after he was inaugurated.