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Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2001 / 7 Shevat 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Bush Should go for
broke early on education -- 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 action.

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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09/07/99:Airport rage increases, with good reason
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08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
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08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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