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Jewish World Review Jan. 8, 2002 / 24 Teves, 5762

Chris Matthews

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The two Georges -- REP. GEORGE MILLER, a California Democrat, is as liberal as George W. Bush, the Texas-bred Republican, is conservative.

Two things explain their potent partnership in passing the landmark education bill that Bush is now set to sign. One is an agreement on policy: Both agree on the need to get federal help -- that means money and higher standards -- to those schools that need it the most. The other is that they get along well: The human chemistry is strong between these two guys of the same age.

"I was surprised at how relaxed he was," said Miller of their first meeting the month before Bush's inauguration. "He knew he was president, but he didn't have to prove it to you. The other guy (Bill Clinton) had to prove it to you every time he was with you. He took all the oxygen out of the room.

"(Bush) is a regular guy," the California congressman continued, "who talks like a regular person. He doesn't stand on a lot of formality."

What mattered most to Miller was the then-Texas governor's commitment to helping poor schools get better. Alone among state chief executives, Bush had proved his commitment to making government accountable for the performance of every public school student. Miller liked what he saw. Even before Bush's election, the California Democrat and his liberal colleagues tried to get congressional Republicans to do nationally what the governor of Texas was doing locally: test students to see whether they're learning what they're supposed to.

The education reform bill to be signed this week includes a 20-percent hike in federal spending for education, much of it aimed at schools where students aren't performing well. States will be required to give special aid to those schools whose students don't meet the new standards. And they will be required to take control of those schools that continue to flunk them.

Miller notes that when President Clinton gave more flexibility to state governments in how they spent federal education dollars, Bush was the one governor who grabbed the no-strings-attached approach and ran with it.

"It's a long story. Clinton decided that he would do something with flexibility and red tape. He told a select group of governors that they could have their education money with no strings attached if they would file a plan and reform their system of education."

As Miller recounts it, only one governor saw the opportunity behind the new approach: George W. Bush of Texas. Only one made himself accountable for the academic performance of every student.

A month before his inauguration, Bush was back pushing for such a system nationally: "I'm here to tell you that I want a system at the federal level that will hold the system accountable for each and every child."

"This is the radical thing: to have a conservative president who comes to Washington and says 'I want federal dollars to go to the poorest schools with the poorest-performing children.'"

Hearing Bush make this commitment was a breath of fresh air to Miller. For years, he watched Democrats allow federal education dollars get distributed to better-off schools, and thereby be diluted.

"In one moment, he changed to focus back to what I always believed it should have been: federal aid to disadvantaged children."

"This guy is talking my language," Miller recalls saying to himself. The result was a broad bi-partisan agreement on how to fix education: get money to where it is needed most and accompany it with standards.

"I think what we really ended up with was a conversation about education, instead of a war."

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Comment by clicking here.

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