A bill at any cost

National | Does the White House care more about pleasing Democrats than about achieving education reform with results?

Issue: "Power struggle," May 26, 2001

in Washington-It sounded like a live-action version of the game "What's Wrong with This Picture?" House Speaker Dennis Hastert summoned six Republican congressmen to his office for a phone call with the White House, a trip that sounded like being called to the principal's office. Their offense: They planned to vote the next day against the altered House education bill because it had taken out too much of the president's education plan. Bush chief of staff Andrew Card and congressional liaison Nick Calio lobbied the dissenters to bail out on the Bush principles, even citing new favorable poll numbers. It's not like the bill was in danger of losing. It passed the Education and Workforce Committee by a commanding vote of 41-7, landing every Democrat but one, Donald Payne of New Jersey. But conservative holdouts were dismayed by the White House pressure for a unanimous vote to abandon most of the president's principles. They discovered that a Rose Garden signing ceremony had become more important to the Bush administration than the Bush plan, and Mr. Card was intent on soliciting the support of the Democratic education barons. "Conservatives are in a bit of a quandary around here," Rep. Bob Schaffer (R.-Colo.), one of the six dissenters, told WORLD. "We thought Al Gore lost." The other no votes were from Peter Hoekstra of Michigan (a prominent education subcommittee chairman), Mark Souder of Indiana, Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint. The political pull of being "for" education in Washington is a very powerful thing. Improving education is not the point: Per-pupil expenditures have increased from $5,087 in 1979 to $6,251 in 1999 (in constant 1999 dollars), but standardized test scores have remained flat, and low. Throwing the E-word around and saying you're all for it has its own political magic. Democrats were delighted for years when Republicans called for the abolition of the Department of Education. Such an unsubtle preference for a decentralized education system was easy to demonize as "anti-education." Candidate George W. Bush pushed for an end to that rhetoric when he ran for president, and the electorate liked his pledge to spend more on education but demand results for the dollars. TeamBush was delighted and Democrats were alarmed when recent bipartisan poll numbers showed the erosion of Democratic advantage on the education issue. But the current House and Senate bills suggest a Republican education agenda that's beginning to sound more like the 1970s than the 1990s. House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner once proposed a bill abolishing the Education Department. Now he's shepherding an education bill (numbered H.R. 1) that conservative groups dislike so much that they're working to defeat the bill. Fifty groups now are on record opposing the bill, including pro-family groups (Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum, Traditional Values Coalition), as well as more generic conservative groups (American Conservative Union, Free Congress Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Independent Women's Forum). Mr. Boehner boasted that his bill sent "an unmistakable signal that after three and a half decades of increasing education spending, Washington is finally beginning to demand results for our children." But education analyst Erika Lestelle of the Family Research Council said she didn't see much reform in the new bill. "The cornerstones were consolidation, choice, accountability, and flexibility. All that is left is accountability, and without choice for parents or flexibility for local governments, that means a heavily bureaucratic educational system. The accountability is not to the parents, but to the federal government." One point of contention among conservatives is the evolution of a national testing system based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Neoconservative experts like William Bennett and the Manhattan Institute's Chester Finn believe a national test would provide a uniform regime to measure which schools and which states are failing, which would lead to reform. Traditional conservatives worry that a national test would lead to a national curriculum, with all the political and cultural influences Washington would like to impose. Ms. Lestelle said the FRC and other pro-family groups were counting on a conservative House bill that could help conservatives demand half a loaf in conference, and they were disappointed by the administration's willingness to bail out on its own stated principles before that half-loaf could be baked. "When you start out from the very beginning and give in on principles you ran on in your campaign, that's a problem," she said. Considering the administration's pressure, she was impressed with the six who resisted the cajoling to go along and get along. She said there were going to be eight GOP no votes, but two Texans-freshman John Culberson and veteran Sam Johnson-found the political stakes too high to pick fights. While he declared that the House bill could be "much, much better," Mr. Culberson told WORLD that "No one from the White House pressured me." He said the dissenters on the committee understood the "unique dilemma" that he and Mr. Johnson faced as Texans. "There is a determined effort by the House leadership to keep Democrats on board, and the survival of the nation depends on Republican control, and I would not vote to gratuitously injure the president I love and support." For their part, the Democrats weren't boasting about how they'd rolled the new president. Sen. Ted Kennedy said the Senate bill didn't include their pet initiatives, such as increases in school construction funding or public after-school programs. Rep. Nita Lowey insisted "the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress get an F. In order to accommodate his massive tax plan, President Bush has simply wiped the chalkboard clean of critical programs that our children need." But what the National Education Association and other teachers unions wanted out of the bill came out. Congress caved early on proposals for vouchers for students in failing schools, and followed that with the removal of "Straight A's," which would have allowed states to use federal funds as they saw fit and avoid federal regulations if they agreed to meet performance goals. Liberal lobbyists also fought off a "charitable choice" proposal to offer federal funding to faith-based after-school programs. The legislative package that's developing lays out a growing federal presence in education. The House bill authorizes $22.6 billion in spending for next year alone, $3.5 billion more than Mr. Bush requested. Krista Kafer of the Heritage Foundation found the Senate bill has grown from 500 pages to 794 pages, longer than current education law. The words "shall," "will," and "must" appear over 1,500 times. Among the 760 education programs spread out among 39 federal agencies, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which the House and Senate are reauthorizing) boasts 61 separate program line items. Both bills consolidate a little, although less than the president's plan: The Senate bill has 45 programs, the House bill has 33. Ms. Kafer has gone from booster to worrier as the legislation grows: "They show they care by increasing money for things that sound good, but increasing funds for things that don't work is not good for children. It's not compassionate." The House-Senate conference will have to hash out some culturally contentious matters, such as "educational equity" initiatives to provide assistance to girls (even though recent NAEP tests show girls outscore boys in reading and writing, and are evenly matched in math and science). The Senate bill also includes "hate crime" education language advocated by the teachers unions and the homosexual left. The Senate bill recently gained an amendment by Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas that would quadruple federal funding of bilingual education, even though current law has no accountability requirement that children have to demonstrate they've learned English. There's also no current need for parental consent: Schools often enroll students without parents' knowledge or permission, and parents often fight to remove their kids from the program. The overwhelming vote for the House bill in committee suggests conservatives hoping to defeat the education package face an almost impossible challenge. Putting conservative language back in the bill that lands at the White House will also be difficult. Political pundits suggest education is just one issue where conservatives will have to take it on the chin. One even suggested the conservative wing of the GOP is now "anesthetized and integrated into the mechanism of Bush Incorporated." But if the new education law results in the same flat line of low test scores, the man who promised to be a "reformer with results" will be hard pressed to produce results-and students equipped only for poverty will be the biggest losers.

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