In an attempt to defend his decision to accept $240,000 from the Bush administration in return for promoting the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law, Armstrong Williams has claimed that he always supported the policy. But in 2001, he strongly criticized the administration's decision to drop private school vouchers from NCLB, even touting this criticism on television and going so far as to write in his nationally syndicated column that by dropping the voucher provision, Bush had “scooped out” the legislation's “soul.” And Williams's January 10 column, purporting to explain his arrangement with the Bush administration, focused much more on his support for vouchers than his support for NCLB.
According to a Media Matters search, Williams mentioned No Child Left Behind in only one article prior to accepting the money to promote the law in December 2003 -- and specifically praised NCLB in at least five columns since. In numerous January 7 TV appearances responding to USA Today's report exposing his contract with the Bush administration to promote NCLB, Williams attested to a longstanding belief in NCLB; for example, on CNN's American Morning, Williams said that NCLB was “something that I really believed in as a commentator, something I wrote often about.”
But Williams's previous comments about NCLB suggest that Williams developed strong reservations about the law when the voucher provision, which had been in President Bush's original proposal, was dropped before final passage by Congress. In a May 16, 2001, syndicated column, he wrote: “By letting vouchers fall by the wayside and by throwing more money at public schools than any president had previously imagined, Mr. Bush scooped out the soul of his own education proposal.” Williams even touted his criticism of Bush for allowing vouchers to be dropped from NCLB. On the June 25, 2001, edition of FOX News' The Edge with Paula Zahn, Williams pointed to his criticism of Bush on NCLB to argue that conservative radio hosts were not giving Bush a free pass: “On the issue like where he [Bush] just totally capitulated to Senator Ted Kennedy [D-MA] on his education plan, on vouchers, which he's trying to revive today, we certainly criticized him on that because the plan eventually became the Kennedy plan.”
Notwithstanding his prior sharp criticism of Bush and NCLB because of the voucher exclusion, in his January 10 column, titled “My Apology,” Williams touted, ostensibly as support for his assertion that he has been a longtime proponent of NCLB, his long-expressed convictions about the importance of vouchers, disingenuously conflating the two issues:
The ad [the Bush administration paid Williams to air on his syndicated television program] was to promote The Department of Education's “No Child Left Behind” plan. I have long felt that school vouchers hold the greatest promise of ending the racial education gap in this country. We need to hold schools accountable for their failures and create incentives to change. That is why I have vigorously supported school vouchers for the past decade -- in print, on TV, during media appearances and in lectures. I believe that school vouchers represent the greatest chance of stimulating hope for young, inner city school children -- often of color. In fact, I am a board member of Black Americans for Educational Options (BAEO), because I feel that school choice plans hold the promise of a new civil rights movement.
In the past I have used my column space to convey the promise of school options. I continued to do so, even after receiving money to run a series of ads on my television show promoting the “No Child Left Behind” act. I now realize that I exercised poor judgment in continuing to write about a topic which my PR firm was being paid to promote.
I also understand that people must be able to trust that my commentary is unbiased. Please know that I supported school vouchers long before the Department of Education ran a single ad on my TV show. I did not change my views just because my PR firm was receiving paid advertising promoting the No Child Left Behind Act.
Williams has indeed been a devoted advocate of vouchers. According to a Media Matters Nexis search, Williams has mentioned “vouchers” in his columns on 33 separate occasions.
In his only article praising NCLB prior to being paid to do so -- posted July 28, 2003, at the website BlackElectorate.com -- Williams wrote that NCLB “empowers parents with the freedom to remove their children from failing and unsafe schools.” Williams's remark referred to the public school choice measure in NCLB, which states that “If a child attends a Title I school that has been designated by the state to be in need of improvement or unsafe, parents can choose to send the child to another public school.”