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Ed Bill Moves to Back of Class

Monday, 21 May 2001 12:00 AM

Today: Is the education bill dead in the water?

Roff: It isn't what the president sent to Capitol Hill

In the first 100 days of his administration, the president repeatedly articulated his governing priorities. High on the list was a federal education package that would empower parents and teachers, increase student accountability for performance, focus on what works, increase flexibility and break the power of the education establishment that has presided over declines in U.S. education for many years.

The original White House plan, No Child Left Behind, contained many of the elements for which the president campaigned during the election. Since it was introduced, however, many of the best provisions have been watered down or, like vouchers, stripped from the bill, making it somewhat unpalatable to congressional conservatives who want to change the way education works in the United States.

Some, like the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, have gone so far as to call the version currently under discussion "a very expensive version of failed current law."

For political reasons, the White House chose to negotiate in earnest with Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Ted Kennedy and others of his stripe to produce a bill that could be passed and signed. This is a pragmatic position, and politically, a short-term success.

A number of recent polls have shown Republicans even or ahead of Democrats in public perceptions of which party is best able to deal with the education issue. This is a sea change of dramatic proportions as education was always a bread-and-butter issue for Democrats.

The price for this may be a piece of legislation that significantly diminishes many of the reforms the White House initially wanted and, in some cases, strikes them completely from the bill.

Conservatives complain that the Charter States provision, which would have increased state education flexibility by focusing on student accountability rather than procedural requirements, has been eliminated.

Conservative critics like The Heritage Foundation are particularly incensed about the removal the portion of the bill that would have allowed parents to choose other options if their children are in persistently unsafe and failing schools. Without the proposed private-choice escape hatch -- popularly known as vouchers -- another generation of children is potentially trapped in failing schools.

There are other problems with the bill as currently understood. For example, efforts to consolidate federal education programs have been diluted while ineffective and pork spending have been added.

On the plus side, there are still components of the bill that remain strong and are worth supporting. These include administrative accountability, expanded public school choice, bilingual reforms and research-based reading instruction.

The real risk for Republicans, though, is political. If the education bill that is passed and signed into law has the Bush/GOP imprimatur without containing any of the real reforms that will work, then schools will continue to fail and the Republicans will be held responsible. The smart move is to strengthen the bill in conference and give America a package that will fix the schools. It is a safe bet that the support of millions of grateful parents trumps the support of Ted Kennedy.

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Chapin: The education bill is a necessary fig leaf

The education bill was designed not to change U.S. education, but to carry out political tasks, to give the administration some cover in two areas: education itself, and "bipartisanship."

Education in the United States is not primarily a federal responsibility, but rather a state and local one. But, after a generation of fighting the Department of Education and the public school system in the United States, the Republican Party had a big problem on this issue. By proposing to stop attacking the department, and moderating the Republican position on vouchers -- in practice if not in theory -- President Bush has, so far, reached his political goal.

Even better, he has done so on the cheap. As David Gergen pointed out, he is spending a thousand times more on his tax cut than he is on his education increases. He'll complain that the budget will be "busted" by a few billion dollars more for education, but it is a busted budget already. The Democrats have to show they are doing something, so they and the Republicans will fight over these few billion dollars after a trillion dollars has already gone out the door.

Meanwhile, education has become almost the sole evidence of "bipartisanship" or moderation that the new administration has to show. That's why conservatives are beginning to defect. Ninety-five percent isn't enough. They want 100 percent.

On every other issue, from missile defense to energy, from the environment to China, from taxes to abortion, the Republican right has had its way. So, whether it does anything or not (and there's no evidence that there's anything in any version of this bill that would be likely to change education in any particular way), this bill must pass. It may not be much, but it's the only fig leaf of "compassionate conservatism" that remains from last year's campaign. Without it, the stark appearance of a right-wing, big business administration would be obvious to all.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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Today: Is the education bill dead in the water? Roff: It isn't what the president sent to Capitol Hill In the first 100 days of his administration, the president repeatedly articulated his governing priorities. High on the list was a federal education package that...
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Monday, 21 May 2001 12:00 AM
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