Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2001 / 7 Shevat 5761
Bush Should go for
broke early on
PRESIDENT BUSH may want to start slow by enacting his $1.6 trillion tax cut
in pieces, but friendly Democrats are advising him to think big from the
outset on education.
Aides to Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) have told
Bush advisers that the new president should push for a full package of
education reforms right away, not just a $5 billion reading initiative.
The other day, Lieberman, Bayh and a group of House New Democrats will
reintroduced broad-gauge legislation giving states new education flexibility
and more money while requiring them to boost student performance.
These concepts are similar to the ones espoused by Bush during the
presidential campaign - and also by the moderate Republican Main Street
Partnership in the House - but it's not clear whether he will ask for
wholesale reforms immediately.
House GOP staffers are under the impression that he wants to introduce
popular, easy-to-pass reading legislation first in order to get a positive
pattern of achievement started in Congress.
That's similar to the strategy being discussed for taxes (controversial
among Republicans) whereby Bush would try to get popular marriage
penalty, estate tax and retirement bills passed before going for difficult
across-the-board rate cuts.
Moderate Republicans favor the gradualist tax approach, but conservatives
and GOP Congressional leaders argue that Bush should ask for hefty cuts
right away, even though Democrats will oppose them. They contend that
Bush needs to beat the Democrats on this big, signature issue if he is to
establish his primacy in Washington.
Of course, conservatives also favor large, across-the-board cuts as a
matter of policy - as does the Republican base - and want Bush to get
them passed while his honeymoon is still under way.
Moreover, they say, popular items will help "sweeten" the big tax-cut bill.
But if those items are enacted early, it will make it harder to attract
support for rate cuts that Democrats allege are skewed to the rich.
A similar legislative logic is at work on education, which Bush aides have
signaled will be his first initiative, possibly to be unveiled this week. But
this time it's Democrats who are urging a comprehensive push.
"Why should we pass a $5 billion reading initiative," said one Democratic
aide, "when we already have an $8 billion one that needs to be reformed?"
The $8 billion-per-year program is Title 1 of the 1965 Elementary and
Secondary Education Act, which aids disadvantaged students. The cost of
Bush's reading initiative, also designed to help the poor, would be spread
over five years.
New Democrats argue that passing the reading program first would conflict
with one of the education goals they and Republicans seek: consolidating
programs to give states maximum flexibility in using federal aid.
The Lieberman-Bayh proposal would reduce the 50 programs covered by
ESEA to just five. The bill is hotly opposed by liberal Democrats and by
teachers' unions, which want the federal education bureaucracy to be able
to manipulate state and local education policy.
In order to pass a controversial consolidation-flexibility measure, the New
Democrats argue, an ESEA reform bill needs to contain substantial new
resources, $35 billion over five years in the Lieberman-Bayh bill.
There is agreement practically across the political spectrum that the
federal government should insist that states and school districts establish
and meet higher standards of student performance.
Another item recommended by both New Democrats and moderate
Republicans, led by Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), is that Title 1 money be
targeted more effectively at low-income areas instead of being spread
around - even to affluent districts that may contain few poor children.
Moderate Republicans are calling for greater independence for the
Department of Education's evaluation and research branch to guarantee
that education statistics are not manipulated for political effect.
Both Democrats and moderate Republicans argue that a broad-gauge
education package will be easier for Congress to pass than
across-the-board tax cuts because last year the House actually pushed
through ESEA renewal and a bill designed to improve teacher quality. Both
measures died in the Senate.
Bush clearly has it in mind - and it is in his power - to be the nation's
ultimate "education president," a mantle that his father desperately sought
to wear. He could seize the legacy by completing the reform process
begun with the 1983 "Nation at Risk" report, which signaled that U.S.
schools were a threat to the nation's well-being.
Already indicating that he will take a bipartisan approach to education by
dropping private school vouchers, if necessary, in negotiations with
Congress, Bush should complete that process by vowing to ensure that
teachers are paid professional salaries.
He charged during the campaign that, despite a doubling of federal
spending on education during the Clinton years, the country still is mired
in an "education recession."
Just as he is calling for a huge tax cut to save the economy from a
slowdown (it's not clear there's a recession), our new president should
keep in mind that education reform also deserves bold
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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